US discussing naval task force with 12 nations in response to Houthi attacks

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Washington has been in touch with at least 12 countries as part of efforts to develop a naval task force to secure the passage of commercial vessels in and around the Red Sea, a US defense official tells Al Arabiya English.

US officials have said they are looking at ways to expand an existing task force, Combined Task Force 153, which currently has its base in Bahrain. CTF-153 currently has 39 member nations, but the US defense official said talks involving the 12 nations are centered on what they may be able to contribute to the current task of securing maritime navigation.

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The number of countries involved in the talks has yet to be reported. The official, who spoke to Al Arabiya English on condition of anonymity, did not elaborate on which countries the US was negotiating with.

The Iran-backed Houthis have lobbed missiles and other projectiles at Israel since the fighting began following the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7. US warships have also come into close proximity to missiles and projectiles fired by Iran-backed groups in the Middle East.

The US military said the Houthis attacked the Motor Tanker STRINDA on Monday using an anti-ship cruise missile (ASCM) while it was passing through the Bab al-Mandeb Strait in the Red Sea. The Houthis claimed the attack and said they targeted the tanker because it was going to deliver crude oil to Israel. But the Norwegian owners of the tank said it was headed to Italy and not planning to stop in Israel, according to Reuters. The USS Mason, which responded to a call from the tanker, headed to the scene but later left after no help was needed, according to a US defense official.

US officials have been exploring the idea of a task force focused on the Houthi threats after an uptick of attacks by the group emanating from Yemen against commercial ships as well as at Israel.

The US special envoy for Yemen traveled to the Gulf earlier this month, which the State Department said was threatening almost two years of progress to end the yearslong war in Yemen.

Tim Lenderking went to continue “intensive” US diplomacy and regional coordination to safeguard maritime security in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden amid the increase in Houthi and Iranian attacks, the State Department said.

The US military said it had every reason to believe four attacks on commercial vessels in the Red Sea last week were “fully enabled” by Iran despite being launched by Yemen’s Houthis, adding that the US would consider “all appropriate responses.”

On Thursday, Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin discussed the Houthi threats to freedom of navigation in the Red Sea with regional officials.

During a call with Saudi Arabia’s Defense Minister Prince Khalid bin Salman, Austin underscored Iran’s dangerous role in advising, arming, and training the Houthis. He said he also spoke about Washington’s desire to work with “like-minded partners to secure safe passage for global shipping,” which came days after the US said it had a framework in place for a maritime task force.

In a call with his Israeli counterpart last week, Austin also condemned the growing Houthi aggression in the Red Sea, which he said threatens freedom of navigation and the free flow of commerce.

Read more: US issues new sanctions in response to latest Houthi attacks in Middle East

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