Dec 4 (Reuters) – Yemen’s Houthis have stepped up their role in the conflict in the Middle East, targeting vessels in the southern Red Sea in attacks the Iran-aligned group says aim to support the Palestinians as Israel and Hamas wage war.
The U.S. military said on Sunday three commercial vessels came under attack in international waters in the southern Red Sea. A U.S. destroyer, responded to distress calls and provided assistance following missile and drone launches from Houthi-controlled territory, according to U.S. Central Command.
The Iran regime-aligned Houthis said they had attacked two Israeli ships. The Israeli army said the ships had no link to Israel.
Here are some details about the Houthis:
In the late 1990s, the Houthi family in far north Yemen set up a religious revival movement for the Zaydi sect of Shi’ite Islam, which had once ruled Yemen but whose northern heartland had became impoverished and marginalised.
As friction with the government grew, they fought a series of guerrilla wars with the national army and a brief border conflict with Sunni powerhouse Saudi Arabia.
WAR IN YEMEN
The war began in late 2014 when Sanaa was seized by the Houthis. Worried by the growing influence of Shi’ite Iran along its border, Saudi Arabia intervened at the head of a Western-backed coalition in March 2015 in support of the Saudi-backed government.
The Houthis established control over much of the north and other big population centres, while the internationally recognised government based itself in Aden.
Yemen has enjoyed more than a year of relative calm amid a U.N.-led peace push. Saudi Arabia has been holding talks with the Houthis in a bid to exit the war.
But the Houthi attacks on Israel have increased the risks of conflict for Saudi Arabia.
The Houthis’ arsenal includes ballistic missiles and armed drones capable of hitting Israel more than 1,000 miles from their seat of power in Sanaa. On Oct. 31, the Houthis military spokesperson said the group had a “large number” of ballistic missiles and drones towards Israel.
The group has built a huge arsenal which it showed in a public parade in September, showing defiance after nearly a decade of war with a Saudi-led coalition.
Its Tofan, Borkan, and Quds missiles are modelled on Iranian weapons, experts say. They can hit targets up to 2,000 km (1,200 miles) away, experts say.
The Houthis fired these missiles at Saudi Arabia dozens of times during the Yemen war. In September, the Houthis displayed anti-aircraft Barq-2 missiles, naval missiles, a Mig-29 fighter jet and helicopters for the first time.
The Houthis have also used fast boats armed with machine guns in their operations against shipping.
ROLE IN MIDEAST WAR
The Houthis declared they had joined the conflict on Oct. 31, announcing they had fired drones and missiles at Israel and
vowing they would continue to mount attacks “until the Israeli aggression stops”.
Part of a regional alliance known as the “Axis of Resistance” backed by Iran, the Houthis have rallied behind the Palestinians since Hamas attacked Israel.
The Houthis’ slogan is “Death to America, Death to Israel, curse the Jews and victory to Islam”.
LINKS WITH IRAN
The Saudi-led coalition accuses Iran of arming, training and funding the Houthis. The group denies being an Iranian proxy and says it develops its own weapons.
The Houthis have demonstrated their missile and drone capabilities during the Yemen war in attacks on Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, targeting oil installations and vital infrastructure.
The U.S. military said on Sunday they had every reason to believe the attacks against commercial ships were “fully enabled” by Iran.
(Reporting by Aziz El Yaakoubi and Maha Dahan; Editing by Tom Perry and Christina Fincher)