STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The United States Navy says its ships returned fire at targets in Yemen. Navy destroyers, small but powerful warships, are in the nearby Red Sea. They launched missiles at radar stations, we're told, which the U.S. says were used to target the Navy. NPR national security editor Phil Ewing is in our studios He's following this story. Phil, good morning.
PHIL EWING, BYLINE: Good morning.
INSKEEP: Who was shooting at the Navy?
EWING: We don't know exactly who was shooting. These shots came from what the U.S. government says are rebel-controlled or Houthi controlled areas of Yemen. But precisely who exactly pulled the trigger, we don't yet know. There are advanced anti-ship weapons that could have come from a regional power like Iran. Iran may be responsible. It may be involved, and there were several incidents that took place. One involved a ship being operated by the United Arab Emirates, which was destroyed and then there were two other attacks from Yemen against an American destroyer the USS Mason before the Navy decided to return fire.
INSKEEP: The UAE had a naval vessel that was destroyed by these anti-ship missiles?
EWING: That's right. It's leasing a catamaran that was operating in these waters. We don't know exactly what it was doing, but it may have been delivering supplies to Yemen. And it was hit by one of these anti-ship missiles and burned to the waterline it took a great deal of damage. No one was killed, but several of the crewmembers were hurt.
INSKEEP: So we have to underline this. We're dealing with a situation where there's a chaotic civil war, where there's lots of rebel groups and other groups, and you imagine them with Kalashnikovs or handheld rocket launchers. But these are sophisticated weapons they've gotten from somewhere?
EWING: That's correct.
INSKEEP: And even though you don't know who fired the weapons, who controlled the ground where the weapons seemed to have been fired from?
EWING: The U.S. says these radar stations were in territory controlled by this anti-government force, the Houthis, which has been fighting against the internationally recognized government since 2015. The U.S., the Saudis, the other Gulf states are supporting that government against this Houthi rebel force. And in the civil war that's taking place on land in Yemen, the U.S. has been providing assistance and support for the Saudi airstrikes that have been taking place there. They've been widely criticized in international circles for being indiscriminate. But so far before today, the U.S. has not intervened directly as in expended its own ordinance in Yemen.
INSKEEP: So the firing was from Houthi-controlled areas, and the Houthis are on the opposite side of this conflict from the United States. You mentioned radar stations. I guess they're important because that's how you target other ships with these anti-ship weapons. So what did the U.S. do to them?
EWING: It shot them with Tomahawk cruise missiles from another destroyer the USS Nitze. And in a statement this morning, the Navy said, quote, "these limited self-defense strikes were conducted to protect our personnel, our ships and our freedom of navigation in this important maritime passage way." This is taking place near a strait that connects the Red Sea in the Gulf of Aden called the Bab-el-Mandeb, the gate of tears. And it's where a lot of oil and other commerce passes back and forth as it goes up the Red Sea to the Suez Canal or the other way toward the ports in Eastern Africa and the Middle East.
INSKEEP: Did any of the missile shots that destroyed this UAE ship get anywhere close to American ships?
EWING: No, they did not. The USS Mason which was the target in two of these attacks responded with some defensive systems, but we don't know exactly yet what that involved, whether it used decoys or countermeasures or even launched missiles of its own. There have been some press reports about this, but no official confirmation that may have destroyed those attacking weapons.
INSKEEP: How much does this deepen U.S. involvement in Yemen's civil war?
EWING: It definitely changes the calculus for the White House because so far, it has tried to keep an arm's-length approach to this Yemeni conflict. But now there are these American warships expanding their ordinance in Yemen, and it will force the White House to reassess how close it wants to get to the ongoing conflict there.
INSKEEP: Strictly speaking we're at war. U.S. military forces are firing and being fired upon.
EWING: Correct. The Navy says this was a limited action, a self-defensive action. We'll see whether or not they keep that up, but right now the world is watching to see what comes next.
INSKEEP: Phil, thanks.
EWING: Thank you.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's national security editor Phil Ewing on this day that the U.S. Navy says it fired shots into Yemen.
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