Leaders from the United States and 12 other partner nations warned of the possibility of escalating military action against Houthi fighters if their attacks against commercial vessels in the Red Sea continue, calling the assaults “illegal, unacceptable, and profoundly destabilizing.”

In a statement released by the White House on Wednesday, the group said the Houthi attacks against civilian vessels in the region have “no lawful justification” and must be stopped immediately. On Sunday, U.S. forces sank three Houthi boats in the Red Sea following an attack on a merchant ship there.

“Let our message now be clear: We call for the immediate end of these illegal attacks and release of unlawfully detained vessels and crews,” the statement said. “The Houthis will bear the responsibility of the consequences should they continue to threaten lives, the global economy, and free flow of commerce in the region’s critical waterways.”

During a White House briefing on Tuesday, National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said that the growing U.S. military presence sent to the Red Sea — which includes an aircraft carrier strike group centered around the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower — now totals more than 4,000 sailors and Marines and more than 130 aircraft.

“As the president has made clear, the United States does not seek conflict with any nation or actor in the Middle East, nor do we want to see the war between Israel and Hamas widen in the region,” Kirby said. “But neither will we shrink from the task of defending ourselves, our interests, our partners, or the free flow of international commerce.”

A senior administration official said that since Nov. 19, Houthi fighters have attacked commercial ships in the Red Sea at least 23 times. On Dec. 30, U.S. forces shot down two anti-ship ballistic missiles targeting a Singapore-flagged ship, an attack which the official called “unprecedented” in its use of munitions and technical sophistication.

The official also confirmed that U.S. naval personnel have come under fire from Houthi militants during the Americans’ work in the region, with no injuries so far. U.S. forces sunk three Houthi ships, killing the small boat crews, on Dec. 31 in response to one such attack.

Houthi leaders have said publicly their goal in the attacks is to target vessels bound for Israel as a way to help Palestinians under siege in Gaza. But U.S. officials said the attacks have gone far beyond that and endangered countless other ships and individuals.

According to the White House, nearly 15 percent of global seaborne trade passes through the Red Sea, including 8 percent of global grain trade and 12 percent of seaborne-traded oil. Kirby acknowledged during the briefing that many companies are now opting to sail south around Africa rather than attempt a transit of the Red Sea because of the violence.

“You’re adding weeks and weeks onto voyages and untold expenses have to be applied in order to do that,” Kirby said. “Plus, that’s a dangerous journey. So, obviously, there’s a concern about the impact on global commerce.”

The multinational group signing the joint statement included Australia, Bahrain, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Singapore and the United Kingdom.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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