A U.S. Navy destroyer launched a salvo of Tomahawk cruise missiles early Thursday at three coastal radar sites along the western coast of Yemen in what officials said was retaliation for missiles launched this week toward a U.S. military ship in the Red Sea.
The Pentagon said the predawn offensive, launched from the U.S. destroyer Nitze, was aimed at installations in an area controlled by Houthi rebels. Initial assessments show the sites were destroyed, according to U.S. officials.
Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook told reporters Thursday that the cruise missile strikes were limited.
"This was a response to direct threats to our people, to our ship, and we responded to that threat and we will be prepared to respond again," Cook said, deflecting questions about Iranian ships being deployed to the region and Tehran's support for the Houthis.
"Iran has played a role and has been supportive of the Houthi rebels more broadly in the conflict in Yemen, and our message to those involved in that separate conflict is that they should return to the negotiating table consistent with where they were just a few months ago," he said.
The strikes, authorized by President Obama, pull the U.S. directly into a war in Yemen that's gone on for more than a year. They came just hours after the Pentagon said the U.S. guided-missile destroyer Mason was targeted by missiles fired from Hudaydah, a rebel-controlled area in western Yemen.
The ship was not hit and no one aboard was injured. It was the third such missile launch reported against the Mason in the last four days.
The destroyer was operating in international waters near the Bab al-Mandeb strait, a narrow waterway between Yemen and the Horn of Africa, where millions of barrels of oil pass through daily on ships bound for Europe, Asia and the U.S.
U.S. officials said the Houthis had seized the coastal radar facilities at Ras Isa, Mukha and Khoka and used them to track and target vessels at sea with anti-ship missiles.
"These radars were active during previous attacks and attempted attacks on ships in the Red Sea," said one U.S. official, who asked not to be identified discussing intelligence or ongoing operations. "The three radar sites were in remote areas, where there was little risk of civilian casualties or collateral damage."
The Mason had been targeted by two missiles, believed to be variants of the Chinese-made Silkworm, on Sunday. It was targeted again with another missile on Wednesday. The ship took countermeasures, including firing interceptor missiles to defend itself, but did not fire on the rebels on land, U.S. officials said.
On Oct. 1, a missile fired from the coast of Yemen hit a high-speed HSV-2 Swift catamaran operated by the United Arab Emirates, nearly destroying it.
The Houthis, a Shiite Muslim group backed by Iranian money and weapons, claimed the attack on the Swift, but not those on the Mason.
The Houthis have been locked in a war with a Saudi-led coalition since last spring when they forced Yemen’s U.S.-backed president into exile and quickly swept across the Arab world's poorest nation.
Yemen’s Houthi-controlled Saba News Agency reported that the government was not responsible for the attacks and said such claims were "false and fabricated justifications to escalate attacks against Yemen and Yemenis and to cover up for the crimes committed by the U.S.-supported, [Saudi]-led Coalition in Yemen and the blockade imposed on Yemen.”
The news agency blamed the coalition for an airstrike on a funeral gathering in Sana on Oct. 8 that killed 135 people and injured 602. Human rights groups have called the attack a war crime, and Saudi officials have vowed to investigate.
Abdullah Mohammed Jaber, 36, of Sana said that the coalition “wanted to turn Yemen into another Iraq.”
Anti-American sentiment has been rising in the capital, where billboards rail against the U.S. involvement in the war, including one that says, “USA kills Yemeni people.”
“The U.N., the world, all countries do not really care about Yemenis being killed everywhere: children, women, old people killed in schools, mosques and now in funerals,” said Sultan Hussein Salahi, 39, a tribal sheikh who lost four relatives in the funeral attack. “There is no safe place in Yemen anymore. The [coalition] aggression is supported by the U.S., U.K. and even the U.N. could not stop it, so blood brings more blood.”
Colette Gadenne of Doctors Without Borders called the missile strikes “very worrisome, even frightening.”
“Everyone is exhausted with this war. We just think we are going down. The situation was desperate and now we are even more worried. The pressure on the health system and the country is deteriorating so fast,” she said.
Her group was working in about a dozen hospitals in Yemen but had to withdraw from many of them in August after airstrikes killed and injured staff. The same month, medical evacuation flights from Sana were halted. Her group and others have appealed to authorities and the United Nations to allow flights to resume.
“There is massive pressure on the hospitals in Sana because all the complicated cases are sent there,” Gadenne said, including victims of the funeral attack. “Now we don’t have any planes to get the people out. … The people feel really trapped.”
Gadenne said she hopes that as the U.S. becomes a more active member of the coalition, it will ensure that hospitals and civilians are not attacked.
The Obama administration has provided intelligence, munitions and midair refueling to coalition aircraft, but has so far avoided direct involvement in the conflict, which has claimed the lives of thousands of civilians.
The White House said in a statement over the weekend that it was reviewing its participation in the conflict after reports of the funeral bombing.
Correspondent Zayd Ahmed contributed to this report from Sana, Yemen.
Hennigan reported from Washington and Hennessy-Fiske from Cairo.
12:35 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook
Oct. 13, 9:21 a.m.: The article was updated with reports from Sana, Yemen and Cairo.
9:30 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details on the airstrikes and background on previous missile launches against the Mason.
This article was originally published at 8:25 p.m., Oct. 12.