EU Red Sea Navy Mission Commander Hopes for More Ships to Repel Houthi Attacks

Houthi fighters march during a rally of support for the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and against the U.S. strikes on Yemen
Houthi fighters march during a rally of support for the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and against the U.S. strikes on Yemen outside Sanaa on Jan. 22, 2024. (AP Photo, File)

BRUSSELS — The commander of a European Union naval mission in the Red Sea wants to significantly increase its size to better defend against possible attacks by Houthi rebels based in Yemen, as just four warships are patrolling an area twice the size of the 27-nation bloc.

The EU mission — dubbed Aspides, from the Greek for “shield” — has escorted 68 ships and repelled 11 attacks since it was established less than two months ago. It only defends civilian vessels and does not take part in any military strikes. The southern part of the Red Sea is deemed a high-risk zone.

“Just a single transit of one of our ships between the two larger distances to the area might take about 10 days, and also to cross the high-risk area takes almost two days,” Greek navy Rear Admiral Vasilios Gryparis, the commander of the mission, told reporters in Brussels on Monday.

He said the high-risk zone “has seen multiple attacks in the past months” ranging from threats and intimidation to “complex attacks” using “shore, air and sea-based assets, drones and ballistic missiles.” No one has been hurt.

Nineteen of the 27 EU nations are involved in the mission but only four frigates are patrolling.

Iran-backed Houthi rebels, which control much of Yemen’s north and west, launched a campaign of drone and missile attacks on shipping in the Red Sea in November. They have also fired missiles toward Israel, although those have largely fallen short or been intercepted.

The attacks have hit maritime trade to Egypt and Europe, with only around half the usual number of ships moving through the area. It’s added up to two weeks of transit time for vessels that want to avoid the Suez Canal, hiking transport costs and shipping insurance.

The rebels have described their campaign as an effort to pressure Israel to end its war on Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The ships targeted by the Houthis, however, largely have had little or no connection to Israel, the U.S. or other nations involved in the war.

Their campaign has continued despite more than two months of U.S.-led retaliatory airstrikes.

The EU mission also remains “very vigilant” for any spike in attacks following last week’s airstrike, widely blamed on Israel, which destroyed Iran’s consulate in Syria, killing 12 people, including two elite Iranian generals, Gryparis said. Top Iranian officials have promised to retaliate.

“We call on Iran to show restraint and to use its influence to avoid escalation, and in particular, with relation to the Houthis,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said, but he added: “I don’t think Iran has full control (of) the Houthi decision-making. They have become quite autonomous.”

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