Rishi Sunak insisted strikes on the Houthis were ‘necessary and proportionate’ as he was grilled by MPs today.
The PM said that the UK, US and allies had to act to protect the freedom of shipping to move on the crucial route.
In a statement to the Commons, he stressed that the action was ‘limited’ and 13 targets had been destroyed without any detected civilian casualties. It had not been possible to consult MPs in advance due to operational factors, he argued.
‘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 said.
The premier’s appearance in Parliament came as a US commercial ship was hit by a missile off the coast of Yemen.
US Central command said Iranian-backed Houthi militants fired an anti-ship ballistic missile from Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen and struck the M/V Gibraltar Eagle, a Marshall Islands-flagged, U.S.-owned and operated container ship.
The UK Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO) first reported there had been an ‘incident’ 95 nautical miles south east of Aden, though details of the incident remain scarce.
That report only said the ship’s captain reported that the ‘port side of vessel hit from above by a missile,’ but did not identify the ship or elaborate. It is currently not known who was behind the attack and an investigation has been launched.
Private intelligence firm Ambrey said a US-owned bulk carrier carrying a Marshall Islands flag had been hit by the missile. The firm claimed the vessel remained seaworthy and there were no injuries.
Rishi Sunak made a statement to the Commons this afternoon after authorising UK forces to take part in the raids on Yemen
A US commercial ship was hit by a missile off the coast of Yemen on Monday
A before and after image of a radar station near Sanaa International Airport targeted in US and UK strikes
In a round of interviews this morning, Defence Secretary Grant Shapps said Britain, the US and allies had needed to send a ‘clear message’ that attacks being launched from Yemen must not continue
Mr Sunak told the Commons: ‘I do not take decisions on the use of force lightly. That is why I stress that this action was taken in self-defence. It was limited, not escalatory.
‘It was a necessary and proportionate response to a direct threat to UK vessels and therefore to the UK itself.’
The PM went on: ‘I can tell the House today that our initial assessment is that all 13 planned targets were destroyed.’
He added: ‘We have seen no evidence thus far of civilian causalities, which we took great care to avoid.’
Mr Sunak said: ‘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 joint action took place in the early hours of Friday morning after weeks of Houthi attacks on merchant trade ships in the region.
The US carried out more military operations over the weekend, with the militia threatening retaliation.
Keir Starmer backed the Yemen strikes on Friday, but has faced pressure from his left wing for refusing to demand a Commons vote.
Yesterday he denied ditching a flagship promise on getting Parliamentary consent before UK military action.
Sir Keir made the commitment as he pitched to left-wingers during Labour’s leadership contest four years ago.
At the time the candidate said he would pass a law enshrining three principles, that there must be a ‘lawful case’, a ‘viable objective’ and ‘the consent of the Commons’.
Sir Keir told the Commons: ‘Let me reiterate that Labour backs this targeted action to reinforce maritime security in the Red Sea. We strongly condemn the Houthi attacks that are targeting commercial ships of all nationalities, putting civilians and military personnel in serious danger – including British forces.
‘The Houthi attacks are unacceptable, illegal and, if left unaddressed, could lead to a devastating rise in the cost of essential food in some of the poorest countries. The international community clearly stands against the Houthi attacks.’
Sir Keir said military action must be ‘underpinned by a clear strategy’ and noted it is the role of the Commons to ‘ask the right questions’, adding: ‘Can he confirm that he stands by the parliamentary convention that where possible military interventions by the UK Government – particularly if they are part of a sustained campaign – should be brought before this House?
‘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 replied: ‘I can assure him that it was necessary to strike at speed, as he acknowledged, to protect the security of these operations.
‘That is in accordance with the convention and I remain committed to that convention and would always look to follow appropriate processes and procedures and also act in line with precedent – where he will know there have been strikes in 2015 and 2018 where a similar process as to this was followed.’
Keir Starmer yesterday denied ditching another flagship promise on getting Commons consent before UK military action
He told Sky News the actions of the Iran-backed militant group in Yemen was ‘completely unacceptable’ and described it as ‘almost like thuggery’, with ships from more than 50 nations targeted along the vital global shipping route.
He said the purpose of the air strikes with the US last week was ‘not to go into Yemen or anything like that’, but to ‘send a very clear, I hope unambiguous message’ for the Houthis to stop their assaults.
The Cabinet minister continued: ‘We will now watch and monitor the situation very carefully.
‘As we’ve said — not just to the Houthis but to their Iranian masters, in a sense, because they are really proxies for Tehran — this cannot go on.
‘International shipping … freedom of navigation is just a given and always has been for many, many years. We cannot have that situation where they are trying to harass it and we will keep a very close eye.
‘If we have to take further action, that is something that we will consider.’