Britain is reportedly considering airstrikes on Houthi rebels after the US said its navy sank three boats that had been targeting a container ship in the Red Sea.
Grant Shapps, the defence secretary, said the government would not hesitate to take “direct action” to prevent further attacks amid reports the UK and US are preparing a joint statement to issue a final warning to the Yemeni group.
It comes after the US military said four boats from Houthi-controlled areas in Yemen fired at the Maersk Hangzhou and came within metres of the vessel as US helicopters fired back.
Several crews on the armed Houthi boats were killed, the US Central Command (Centcom) said. No one was injured on the ship.
Writing in the Telegraph, Shapps said the UK “won’t hesitate to take further action to deter threats to freedom of navigation in the Red Sea”.
“The Houthis should be under no misunderstanding: we are committed to holding malign actors accountable for unlawful seizures and attacks,” he said.
This month a Royal Navy destroyer joined international efforts to deter attacks on cargo ships in the Red Sea. HMS Diamond joined American and French warships in a US-led taskforce dubbed Operation Prosperity Guardian.
Multiple reports have said the UK is weighing up the possibility of an armed response as the Iran-backed Houthis claim attacks on ships in the Red Sea that they say are either linked to Israel or heading to Israeli ports.
They say their attacks aim to end Israel’s air and ground offensive targeting the Gaza Strip after the attack by Hamas on 7 October.
David Cameron, the foreign secretary, said he had spoken to Iran’s foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, on Sunday.
“I spoke to [Amir-Abdollahian] today about Houthi attacks in the Red Sea, which threaten innocent lives and the global economy,” Lord Cameron said on X, formerly known as Twitter. “I made clear that Iran shares responsibility for preventing these attacks given their longstanding support to the Houthis.”
Shapps condemned what he described as an “outrageous” bid to disrupt global trade.
A UK government spokesperson said: “The situation in the Red Sea is incredibly serious, and the Houthi attacks are unacceptable and destabilising. As you would expect, while planning is under way for a range of scenarios, no decisions have yet been made and we continue to pursue all diplomatic routes.
“We call for the Iranian-backed Houthi to cease these illegal attacks and we are working with allies and partners to protect freedom of navigation.”
The Singapore-flagged Maersk Hangzhou reported that it had already been hit by a missile on Saturday night while crossing the southern Red Sea and requested assistance, Centcom said in a statement.
In another statement, Centcom said the same ship issued an additional distress call about a second attack “by four Iranian-backed Houthi small boats”.
The attackers fired small arms weapons at the Maersk Hangzhou, getting to within about 20 metres (65ft) of the vessel, and a security team on the ship returned fire, Centcom said.
US helicopters responded to the distress call and returned fire after the small boats crews opened fire on the helicopters using small arms, the statement said. The helicopters sank three of the four boats, killing the crews, while the fourth boat fled, Centcom said.
No damage to US personnel or equipment was reported.
On Saturday, the top commander of US naval forces in the Middle East said Houthi rebels have shown no signs of ending their “reckless” attacks on commercial ships in the Red Sea, even as more nations join the international maritime mission to protect vessels in the vital waterway and trade traffic begins to pick up.