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U.S. strikes Yemen rebels directly for first time.

Summary: The United States carried out airstrikes against Yemen's Houthi rebels for the first time in that country's civil war, destroying three coastal radar sites with Tomahawk cruise missiles in retaliation for missile fire earlier this week toward U.S. Navy ships.

SANAA: The United States carried out airstrikes against Yemen's Houthi rebels for the first time in that country's civil war, destroying three coastal radar sites with Tomahawk cruise missiles in retaliation for missile fire earlier this week toward U.S. Navy ships.

The strikes early Thursday point to the potential for the U.S. to be dragged into a greater role in Yemen's war. For more than a year, Washington has been backing the Arab coalition waging an air campaign against the Houthis and their allies, but had not previously targeted the rebels directly.

The destroyer USS Nitze launched the cruise missiles, according to an American military official. At around 7 a.m., the missiles hit radar sites in three locations along the Red Sea coast: Ras Eissa, Khoukha and Makha, according to Col. Walid Zeyad, a Yemeni naval official in the nearby Red Sea port of Hudaida.

No information on casualties from the U.S. missiles was provided by American officials. The American military official said the sites were in remote areas, where there was little risk of civilian casualties or collateral damage. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press.

President Barack Obama authorized the strikes at the recommendation of Defense Secretary Ash Carter and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford, Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said in a statement.

"These limited self-defense strikes were conducted to protect our personnel, our ships and our freedom of navigation in this important maritime passageway," Cook said.

He said the U.S. would work to ensure navigation in the Red Sea and Bab al-Mandab, a vital strait off Yemen through which shipping between Asia and Europe through the Suez Canal must pass.

In a sign of the regional scope of the Yemen conflict, Iran announced Thursday it was deploying two warships in Bab al-Mandab and the neighboring Gulf of Aden. The semi-official Tasnim news agency said the Alvand and the Bushehr were being deployed as part of a regular anti-piracy patrol off Yemen and East Africa.

Still the timing of the announcement, just hours after the American strikes, suggested it was aimed at sending a signal to the U.S. Iran says it backs the Yemeni rebels but denies arming them. That's contradicted by the U.S. Navy, which says it has intercepted several shipping boats since the war began carrying Iranian weaponry suspected to be on the way to Yemen.Cook declined to comment on the reports of Iran's naval deployments but said it would not be surprising.

He also said the U.S. had "no information" on whether the missiles used to target the USS Mason may have been supplied by Iran.

The U.S. strikes were prompted by two incidents of missile fire from Houthi-held territory toward the USS Mason and USS Ponce, one Sunday and a second early Wednesday, respectively. The missiles fell harmlessly in the ocean in both cases. The missiles fired Sunday were variants of the C-802 Silkworm anti-ship weapons missile with "explosively formed penetrator warheads," said a senior defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The Silkworm is a type of coastal defense cruise missile that Iran has been known to use.

The U.S. strikes did not target Houthi missiles and, though the radars' destruction makes it harder to aim the weapons, the official warned the rebels could still use small spotter boats or even online ship-tracking websites to find new targets. "They do need to knock it off. We will not hesitate" to launch new retaliatory attacks, the official said.

Sharaf Loqman, a spokesman for the Houthi-allied part of the Yemeni army, denied firing on the ships, saying the military never targets ships outside territorial waters. He called the accusations an "American farce to find a reason to interfere in Yemen directly after failure of the Saudis."

Still, observers believed the missile shots were a move by the Houthis to expand the conflict -- or at least signal to the U.S. the danger of expansion -- after the coalition strike on the Sanaa funeral.

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Geographic Code:7YEME
Date:Oct 14, 2016
Words:743
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