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The US and the UK are preparing strikes against Iran-backed Houthi rebels who have been attacking commercial ships in the Red Sea.
The US is expected to lead the military response against the Houthis after the Yemen-based militant group began targeting vessels following Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza.
UK prime minister Rishi Sunak was preparing on Thursday night to authorise strikes, with Britain acting as part of a US-led military coalition.
Sunak convened a call of his cabinet ministers at 7.45pm following a meeting of the National Security Council, Whitehall insiders said.
The Pentagon has drawn up options for targeted strikes on Houthi positions in Yemen, including missile launch sites and weapons depots, according to US officials.
Pentagon press secretary Major General Pat Ryder said on Thursday he would not speculate on any future operations.
The Houthis have carried out more than two dozen attacks on merchant ships in the past two months in the Red Sea, causing acute disruption along a critical maritime trade route.
The Islamist rebels have become one of the most active factions in Iran’s so-called axis of resistance since the war between Israel and Hamas erupted on October 7.
UK defence secretary Grant Shapps said on Wednesday he was in regular contact with allies in the Middle East.
“We are all agreed and in one voice that this cannot continue,” he said of the Houthi rebels’ activities, adding: “We won’t allow it to continue.”
For Sunak this is potentially the most serious military crisis involving British forces since he became prime minister in October 2022, even if the UK is expected to play a junior role in a US-led operation.
Lord Kim Darroch, a former UK national security adviser, said: “Generally we contribute about 10 per cent of any joint operation. The French would normally be asked if they want to get involved.
“The important thing is that we are part of any operation, rather than how much hardware we deliver.”
The UK has two warships in the region, one of them HMS Diamond, which shot down seven of the 18 drones and missiles that the Houthis fired on Tuesday from areas that the group controls in Yemen.
Should the US-led military operation go ahead, deploying British fighter jets to hit Houthi bases is thought to be one option. Firing Tomahawk cruise missiles from UK submarines is believed to be another option.