Rishi Sunak has warned that the Government remains “prepared to back our words with actions”, as missile attacks continued in the Red Sea despite last week’s air strikes against Houthi rebels.
The Prime Minister’s statement in the Commons came shortly after a missile struck a US-owned ship off the coast of Yemen.
Facing questions from MPs, Mr Sunak declined to comment on the possibility of further strikes against the Houthis but insisted the military action would not escalate the situation in the region.
“The threats to shipping must cease. Illegally detained vessels and crews must be released. And we remain prepared to back our words with actions,” Mr Sunak told the Commons.
He told MPs: “I can tell the House today that our initial assessment is that all 13 planned targets were destroyed.
“We have seen no evidence thus far of civilian causalities, which we took great care to avoid.”
The US military’s Central Command on Monday afternoon confirmed the latest attack, putting the blame on Yemen’s Houthi rebels.
“The ship has reported no injuries or significant damage and is continuing its journey,” Central Command said.
The United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO), which oversees Middle East waters, also reported that missile fire had struck a ship in the Gulf of Aden, about 110 miles south east of the southern Yemen border.
UKMTO WARNING 009/JAN/2024 – UPDATE 001
— United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO) (@UK_MTO) January 15, 2024
It is the latest clash during trouble sparked by the Israel-Hamas conflict.
The UK joined the US in targeting Houthi locations in Yemen last week as part of efforts to ensure international cargo vessels can travel through the vital shipping route after assaults by the Iran-backed militants.
“I do not take decisions on the use of force lightly,” Mr Sunak said. “That is why I stress that this action was taken in self-defence. It was limited, not escalatory.”
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said his party backed the “targeted action”, but warned that any military operation must be “underpinned by a clear strategy”.
Weeks of attacks by Houthi rebels have posed a threat to the flow of global trade, disrupting merchant vessels passing through the sea to the Suez Canal, a route that serves 15% of world shipping.
The Houthis, who support Hamas in the Palestinian group’s war against Israel, claim they have targeted ships with links to Tel Aviv.
RAF air strikes, carried out alongside American allies last week, had looked to curtail the militants’ ability to disrupt international shipping, with cargo firms forced to reroute around the southern tip of Africa to avoid the Red Sea — a longer and more costly journey.
But with clashes continuing over the weekend and into Monday, Defence Secretary Grant Shapps refused to rule out British armed forces joining further strikes. It came as Number 10 said it was “too early to determine” the full impact of the strikes.
Washington on Saturday launched a new strike against a Houthi location in Yemen that was determined a threat, according to US officials.
The US military confirmed on Sunday that one of its fighter jets had shot down an anti-ship cruise missile fired at an American destroyer in the Red Sea.
Mr Shapps, asked whether the UK could join another wave of strikes, told Sky News: “If we have to take further action, that is something that we will consider.”
During a later speech in central London, the Cabinet minister said the strike against the Houthis was intended as a “single action” rather than part of a campaign of military attacks.
He said: “We will now monitor very carefully to see what they do next, how they respond and we will see from there.”
Mr Sunak said the allies’ aim was to “de-escalate tensions in the region” after commercial shipping and a Royal Navy warship were attacked by the Houthis.
In a move criticised by some opposition MPs, the Prime Minister announced the military action last week when Parliament was not sitting.
Sir Keir has acknowledged that it is not always possible to hold a vote beforehand, but told Mr Sunak on Monday: “Scrutiny is not the enemy of strategy. Because while we back the action taken last week these strikes still do bring risk, we must avoid escalation across the Middle East.”
Mr Sunak said that he remained committed to parliamentary convention and precedent, but told MPs that the “need to maximise the security and effectiveness of the operation meant that it was not possible to bring this matter to the House in advance.
“But we took care to brief members before the strikes took place, including you of course, Mr Speaker, and the leader of the Opposition, and I have come to the House at the earliest possible opportunity.”
The Prime Minister also said the UK was considering “all diplomatic tools”, including using sanctions against Iran if necessary, amid reports that the country has stepped up its weapons grade uranium enrichment.