By Alexander Cornwell (Reuters) The U.S. Navy said on Wednesday it was establishing a new multinational task force that would target arms smuggling in the waters around Yemen, the latest American military response to Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The effort follows a series of Houthi missile and drone attacks this year on the two Gulf countries, which have since received additional American military assistance but see the United States as weakening its commitment to the region.
U.S. Fifth Fleet Commander Vice Admiral Brad Cooper said the task force would, from Sunday, operate in the Red Sea, Bab al-Mandab and Gulf of Aden and would also target human trafficking and the smuggling of drugs and other illicit goods.
“These are strategically important waters that warrant our attention,” Cooper said on a call with reporters.
The task force would consist of between two to eight vessels and is part of the 34-nation Combined Maritime Forces, which Cooper also commands, that has three other task forces in nearby waters targeting smuggling and piracy.
Asked about missiles and drones used by the Houthi to attack U.S. partners Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Cooper said the new task force would impact the Houthis ability to obtain such weaponry.
“We’ll be able to do it more vibrantly and more directly than we do today,” Cooper added.
A U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the waters between Somalia, Djibouti and Yemen were well known “smuggling paths” for weapons destined for the Houthis.
“The new international task force will certainly go after this issue,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Iran has long been accused of smuggling weapons to the Houthis, a charge it denies.
The United States provided Saudi Arabia and the UAE with additional military assistance this year following Houthi attacks on the Gulf countries. But diplomatic sources have said the Gulf states remain unconvinced that the United States is committed to the region.
The launch of the task force comes amid a two-month truce in the nearly seven-year Yemen war that has killed tens of thousands of people and displaced millions more.
(Reporting by Alexander Cornwell; Editing by Will Dunham)
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