UK not seeking confrontation with Houthis – Sunak

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Rishi Sunak says Britain “was not seeking a confrontation” but would not hesitate to act again

By James Gregory
BBC News

The UK will not hesitate to take further military action against Houthi targets in Yemen if the group continues Red Sea attacks, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has told MPs.

Mr Sunak said the UK was not seeking confrontation with the Iran-backed group, but would continue to act in self-defence.

It follows overnight strikes with the US in Yemen.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said he backed the “targeted action”.

Addressing the House of Commons on Tuesday, Rishi Sunak said: “We are not seeking a confrontation. We urge the Houthis and those who enable them to stop these illegal and unacceptable attacks.

“But, if necessary, the United Kingdom will not hesitate to respond again in self-defence.

“We cannot stand by and allow these attacks to go unchallenged. Inaction is also a choice.”

The strikes on Monday night, led by the US, were the second joint operation with the UK, following raids on 11 January.

Several targets were hit at two military sites north of Yemen’s capital, Sanaa.

Mr Sunak said the strikes were aimed at sites which the Houthis use to support the attacks on shipping and “all intended targets were destroyed”.

“Maximum care” was taken to protect civilians in the strikes, he added. No civilians have died in the strikes on Yemen.

Four RAF Typhoons and a two Voyager tankers were involved in the latest action.

Sir Keir was not briefed on the strikes beforehand, but Downing Street said he and Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle were informed while British fighter jets were in the air at about 22:00 on Monday.

Since November, the Houthis have launched dozens of attacks on commercial vessels travelling through the Red Sea, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.

The pro-Hamas group says it is targeting ships linked to Israel in response to the military ground operation in Gaza.

But Mr Sunak reiterated his position that action against the Houthis was not linked to the conflict between Israel and Hamas.

“There is no link between our actions of self-defence in the Red Sea and the situation in Israel and Gaza,” he told MPs.

“Those who make that link do the Houthis’ work for them.”

Mr Sunak said there had been 12 further attacks by Houthi rebels since 11 January, including on Monday night.

Asked by Sir Keir how effective the latest strikes had been, the prime minister said military action had worked to “degrade capability”, though noted there “may be a difference between reducing and eliminating” the threat.

“The targets are specifically selected on the basis of intelligence, military sites which impact the security and safety of seafarers and shipping, and to that end I’m confident the strikes are being carried out in a way that’s effective and achieving their aim,” he told MPs.

Mr Sunak said action against the Houthis had been a “last resort” and only after repeated warnings had been ignored, adding that the UK in both waves of attacks had acted in order to “protect innocent lives and preserve the freedom of navigation”.

He added that the government aimed to end the illegal sale of weapons to the Houthis and impose sanctions to cut off the group’s financial resources.

The government has published the legal advice it received for the operation, which concluded the strikes were legal under international law.

Sir Keir Starmer backed the strikes and said attacks on vessels needed to stop.

“They are designed to destabilise us so we must stand united and strong, they bring danger to ordinary civilians who are working hard at sea, so we must protect them, and they aim to disrupt the flow of goods, food and medicines, so we must not let them go unaddressed,” he said.

A “general debate” on military action in the region will take place in the Commons on Wednesday. MPs will not be asked to consider and vote on a specific motion.

Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey, who has called for a vote, said his party accepted the case for the strikes but that there had been “remarkably little clarity about what the next steps are and when the UK’s objectives will be judged to have been fulfilled”.

Downing Street has defended the decision not to consult Parliament first, arguing that the government was “acting with precedent” and that “there isn’t a requirement to hold a vote”.

Meanwhile, Foreign Secretary Lord Cameron will be visiting the region this week.

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