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Why Houthis target ships

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Dozens of cargo ships are diverting all the way around Africa and avoiding the Suez Canal. That's because Houthi militants in Yemen have been attacking vessels passing through the Red Sea, which leads to the Suez Canal, all in response to Israel's offensive in Gaza. This week the U.S. announced a naval task force in the Red Sea to safeguard the passage of ships, but the Houthis have vowed that they will not be deterred. NPR's Fatma Tanis explains why.

FATMA TANIS, BYLINE: At a conference this week in Sanaa, Yahya Sarea, the spokesman for the Houthi army, spoke to a crowd of Yemenis.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

YAHYA SAREA: (Speaking Arabic).

TANIS: He said the same American bombs being poured on Gaza are the same American bombs that were poured on us in Yemen nine years ago, adding that they would not stop attacks until Israel stops the war. The Houthis are a tribal militant group allied with Iran. In 2014, they overthrew the Yemeni government and have fought a bloody civil war against the Saudi-led coalition that used U.S. planes and weapons for nearly a decade. Now the conflict is at a stalemate, and Ahmed Nagi, the senior Yemen analyst for Crisis Group, says there are several domestic and regional issues at play.

AHMED NAGI: The Palestinian cause is one of the key pillars of the Houthi ideological narrative since the establishment of the movement.

TANIS: The Houthis are not exactly popular among most Yemenis. The civil war has caused immense suffering, killing hundreds of thousands. There's been hunger and disease. And while the Houthis are de facto governing parts of Yemen, including the capital, Sanaa, they haven't been providing help or services to the people - not even paying their salaries.

NAGI: Because the war was to some extent a way out for them. They now tell people that, look. We are at war, but this is a different war, and you should be silent. So we cannot provide you with anything.

TANIS: But Nagi says, in a country as divided as Yemen, the Palestinian issue is a unifying concern across tribes and factions.

NAGI: So they need to act to show their people that they are the movement of actions, not the movement of words.

TANIS: The Houthis have launched drones and missiles at ships passing through the Red Sea. They even hijacked a vessel. They've also tried to attack the south of Israel and U.S. carrier ships in the region. Most of them have been blocked. Still, the Houthi army has been publishing propaganda videos and songs, strengthening their position beyond Yemen into the region where sympathy for Palestinians is strong.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL GROUP: (Singing in non-English language).

TANIS: This week the Houthi leadership immediately dismissed U.S. efforts to defend against their attack with the nine-country naval task force it's leading. But Gerald Feierstein, the former U.S. ambassador to Yemen, says as the U.S. continues to protect international shipping, there are other priorities it will need to consider.

GERALD FEIERSTEIN: The administration has been very cautious in the way that it's approached these challenges and try to maintain defensive posture, as opposed to being more aggressive in how it responds to these Houthi provocations.

TANIS: One issue is the U.S. does not want the war in Israel to spill over into the region. There's also the ongoing conflict in Yemen, where the stalemate has made way for peace talks. But if the Houthis continue to attack ships...

FEIERSTEIN: They will, if they have to, turn to offensive measures. And that could undermine efforts to resolve the conflict, to end negotiations between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia. And that would not be the solution that the U.S. wants.

TANIS: Analysts say Houthi attacks on ships will increase costs around the world and make food more expensive in Yemen, adding more suffering to what is already one of the world's worst humanitarian crises. Fatma Tanis, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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