Airstrikes on a funeral in Yemen on Saturday have inflamed local opinion, and Washington’s support for Saudi Arabia’s campaign against Houthi rebels has implicated the United States in civilian deaths, according to human rights groups. But there’s another potential side effect: It may have prompted the rebels to turn their weapons against U.S. forces.
The strikes killed more than 140 people and wounded hundreds more. Saudi officials have denied they carried out the attack, but two U.S. defense officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said there is little reason to believe that.
The attacks on a funeral for a Houthi rebel commander in Yemen’s capital city of Sanaa are the latest in a long line of strikes that have killed more than 4,000 civilians since the Saudis began launching airstrikes against the rebels in March 2015.
Within hours of the airstrike on the funeral, a missile was launched from Houthi-controlled territory over Yemen’s northern border into Saudi Arabia and two more were fired at the USS Mason, a Navy destroyer, and the USS Ponce, an amphibious staging base, that were in the Red Sea.
Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters Tuesday that the first missile was launched Sunday about 7 p.m. from a coastal area while the Mason was at least 12 miles offshore in international waters. The ship took undisclosed defensive measures while the first missile was incoming, and the projectile splashed in the sea before causing any damage, he said.
“We want very much to get to the bottom of what happened,” Davis said. “Anybody who fires on U.S. Navy ships does so at peril to themselves.”
One U.S. defense official said the second missile was fired at the Mason about an hour after the first, and it traveled at least 24 miles as the ship was moving away from the shore. Like the first missile, it landed in the water, although in the second case no defensive measures were taken.
The Houthis took credit for firing the missile north into Saudi Arabia on Saturday night but denied they were involved in firing on U.S. ships. Davis said that the “facts certainly seem to point” to the Houthis being involved but that the U.S. is still assessing what happened. The Houthis regularly characterize military operations against their forces as “U.S.-Saudi aggression.”
A report from USNI News published Monday said the Mason fired at least three missiles in its own defense: two Standard Missile-2s and an Enhanced Sea Sparrow Missile to intercept the missile. The outcome of those launches was not clear. The Mason also fired a Nulka anti-ship missile decoy, the report said. The decoys are designed to fool incoming missiles into believing there is another, larger ship to hit than the one targeted.