The Iran-backed Houthis warned it could launch strikes against Italy should the country join Western coalition forces in carrying out attacks in Yemen, a senior official for the group said Monday.
Mohamed Ali al-Houthi, the head of the Houthis supreme revolutionary committee, said in an interview with the daily La Repubblica that Italy should remain neutral amid the ongoing conflict.
He then warned the Mediterranean country it would make itself a target of retaliatory action should it contribute to attacks against the Houthis, which the U.S. State Department said it was officially re-designating as a foreign terrorist group last month.
The comment came after Italian Defense Minister Guido Crosetto said on Friday that an Italian admiral would help lead the European Union Red Sea naval mission tasked with protecting ships from Houthi militia attacks.
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said last week that he hopes the naval mission — named Aspides, meaning “protector” in ancient Greek — will be launched on Feb. 17.
Italy then announced it was tasked with providing the leader of the naval mission.
“The European Union today asked Italy to supply the Force Commander for the Aspides Operation in the Red Sea,” Crosetto said, noting Greece would probably take overall command of the mission. This has not yet been officially announced.
The plan for Italy to be involved with the mission to defend commercial ships along the vital trade route was first announced in Dec. 2023, following a meeting between Crosetto and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
During the virtual meeting, Crosetto affirmed Italy would “play its part” in ensuring stability in the region.
“During the meeting we affirmed the importance of the freedom of navigation principle, assessed impacts on international commerce and discussed possible options aimed to guarantee the security of sea lanes and avoid repercussions on the international economy, with dangerous dynamics for raw material prices. Italy will play its part, together with the International Community, to counter the terrorist destabilizing activities of the Houthis that we have already publicly condemned, and to protect the prosperity of trade and ensure freedom of navigation and compliance with international law,” Crosetto said.
He added, “It is necessary to increase our presence in the area to create the conditions for stabilization, avoid environmental disasters and, moreover, prevent the resumption of inflation peaks.”
Houthis, who control much of Yemen, have carried out dozens of attacks against U.S. Navy vessels and commercial merchant ships in the Red Sea. They claim the attacks are in solidarity with Palestinians who have been killed amid Israel’s war on Hamas in Gaza.
The mandate of the naval mission is to protect commercial ships and intercept attacks, but not to carry out strikes against the Houthis, Borrell said.
Reuters contributed to this report.