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EU’s Red Sea mission set to launch in mid-February, officials confirm

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The European Union mission to protect commercial vessels against Iran-backed Houthi rebel attacks in the Red Sea could kick off in mid-February, EU officials said Wednesday.

“We have to decide which country will take the command … where the headquarters will be, what navy assets member states will provide,” the bloc’s top diplomat Josep Borrell told reporters Wednesday ahead of an informal meeting of defense ministers in Brussels.

Borrell’s communications adviser later said that the launch date should be February 19, which coincides with the next Foreign Affairs Council meeting. Germany’s Parliamentary State Secretary for Defense, Siemtje Möller, also confirmed February 19.

Attacks on vessels by the Houthis — a Yemeni rebel group considered a regional proxy for Iran — have been relentless in recent weeks. Cargo shipments between Asia and Europe are being disrupted, which is starting to have an economic impact.

In December, the United States launched Operation Prosperity Guardian, a mission that includes European countries such as the U.K. and Denmark.

The EU is also looking to set up its own mission. France and Italy already have military vessels in the region. Belgium and Germany said they would send warships to contribute to an EU mission.

Borrell said that, while not all EU countries are sold on the idea, “no one will obstruct.”

He told reporters he hoped ministers will decide during Wednesday’s informal meeting who will take the mission’s lead and that he’ll be able to make an announcement after the gathering. France, Italy and reportedly Greece are front-runners to head the mission.

The EU’s approach is only defensive, Borrell said. It’s about protecting ships and intercepting attacks, “not participating in any kind of actions against the Houthis, only blocking their attacks,” he added. The U.S. and the U.K. have carried out airstrikes against Houthi positions in Yemen.

The mission will be called Aspides, meaning “protector,” Borrell added.

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