RISHI Sunak has said that strikes against Houthi rebel sites in Yemen are “necessary and proportionate” to protect global shipping in the Red Sea.

It comes after the UK and US launched targeted strikes on the military facilities overnight in a move the Prime Minister said was “self-defence”.

In response, Houthi officials have warned the UK and US will “pay a heavy price”.

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Here’s what you need to know.

Who are the Houthi rebels?

The Houthis – officially known as “Supporters of God” or “Ansar Allah” in Arabic – are a group of Shia Islamists based in western Yemen.

The group first emerged in the 1990s and its supporters mainly come from the ranks of Zaidi Shia Muslims and the Houthi tribe.

It opposes US and Israeli influence in the Middle East – with its slogan containing the words “death to America,” “death to Israel” and a “curse upon the Jews”.

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The death of the group’s founder, Hussein al Houthi, at the hands of the Yemeni military, sparked a civil war known as the Houthi insurgency in 2004.

The group is now led by his brother, Abdul-Malik al Houthi and it now controls much of Yemen’s western seaboard down to the Bab al Mandeb Strait – a 16-mile stretch of water that marks the entrance to the Red Sea.

Why have they been attacking ships in the Red Sea?

The Houthis claim the attacks on a narrow strip of sea between Yemen and east Africa, a key international trade route, is part of a bid to end Israel’s air and ground offensive against Gaza.

Several ships have been attacked with drones, rockets and in some cases helicopters have been used to drop militants onto commercial vessels.

In the first week of January, 18 one-way attack drones along with two anti-ship cruise missiles and one anti-ship ballistic missile were fired towards the British warship HMS Diamond and other commercial vessels.

The National: Grant Shapps

At the time, Defence Secretary Grant Shapps (above) dubbed it the “largest attack from the Iranian-backed Houthis in the Red Sea to date”.

A Houthi spokesperson claimed responsibility for the missile and drone strike, claiming they had targeted a US warship that had been operating in support of Israel.

What have Houthi said? 

The Houthi movement, which controls much of Yemen after nearly a decade of war against Saudi Arabia, has emerged as a supporter of the Palestinian group Hamas in its war against Israel. 

The group has attacked ships it says are linked to Israel or bound for Israeli ports, leading to various shipping lines suspending operations with vessels forced to take the longer journey around Africa. 

It is seeking to pressure the Israelis and US into a ceasefire, including lifting the siege on Gaza, chief negotiator for Houthis Mohammed Abdulsalam told Reuters on Thursday. 

"The one who is dragging the region into a wider war is the one who allows the continuation of the aggression and the siege that continues for more than 100 days in the Gaza strip," he said. 

Why have strikes been launched now?

The strike action came after Shapps accused Iran of meddling and declared “enough is enough”.

A week ago, the UK, US and other countries issued a warning to the group to end the targeting of commercial shipping or “bear the responsibility of the consequences”.

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Rishi Sunak also said the attacks could not be allowed to stand and said: “The UK will always stand up for freedom of navigation and the free flow of trade.

“We have therefore taken limited, necessary and proportionate action in self-defence.”