The Prime Minister has announced a six-member Defence Force team will be deployed to the Middle East as regional tensions continue to escalate over Houthi attacks on shipping in the Red Sea.
Announcing the deployment this afternoon, Christopher Luxon said no Kiwi personnel will enter Yemen as part of the operation.
Overnight, the US and British militaries bombed multiple targets in eight locations used by the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen, the second time the two allies have conducted retaliatory strikes on an array of the rebels’ missile-launching capabilities.
Speaking at today’s post-Cabinet media conference, Defence Minister Judith Collins said NZDF personnel would help with “precision attacks”.
“Our personnel will support coalition forces in carrying out precision attacks on identified military targets.
“They will be at operational headquarters in the wider Middle East region and elsewhere,” she said.
“They’ll be there to provide precision targeting. They’re not there to be involved in combat.”
Luxon said “Houthi attacks against commercial and naval shipping are illegal, unacceptable and profoundly destabilising.
“This deployment, as part of an international coalition, is a continuation of New Zealand’s long history of defending freedom of navigation both in the Middle East and closer to home.”
“The team will contribute to the joint self-defence of ships in the Middle East, in line with international law, from headquarters in the region and elsewhere.
“No NZDF personnel will enter Yemen. It is part of a continuous New Zealand defence contribution to maritime security in the Middle East since 2013.”
The deployment is mandated to conclude no later than July 31.
Foreign Minister Winston Peters said: “These efforts support international security and the free flow of trade on which New Zealanders rely.”
He added the Government’s response “should not be conflated with its position on the Israel-Gaza conflict.”
Peters said: “Any suggestion our ongoing support for maritime security in the Middle East is connected to recent developments in Israel and the Gaza Strip, is wrong.
“We are contributing to this military action for the same reason New Zealand has sent defence personnel to the Middle East for decades – we care deeply about regional security because our economic and strategic interests depend on it.”
Collins said Houthi attacks show a disregard for international law, “peace and stability, and the coalition response is an inevitable consequence of their actions”.
“Our NZDF personnel are highly trained and this deployment will see them work alongside their counterparts on an important mission.
“New Zealand supports global stability and this deployment shows our commitment to efforts to address a serious threat to that stability.”
Overnight strikes on Houthi targets
Yesterday night’s joint operation comes about 10 days after US and British warships and fighter jets struck more than 60 targets in 28 locations.
That was the first US military response to what has been a persistent campaign of Houthi drone and missile attacks on commercial ships since the start of the Israel-Hamas war in October. The Houthis’ media office said in an online statement that raids targeted Sanaa, Yemen’s capital.
And Jamal Hassan, a resident from south Sanaa, told The Associated Press that two strikes landed near his home, setting off car alarms in the street. An Associated Press journalist in Sanaa also heard aircraft flying above the skies of Sanaa overnight Monday.
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak spoke with US President Joe Biden yesterday. Sunak’s office said the two leaders agreed to take “as needed, targeted military action to degrade Houthi capabilities.”
The latest barrage of allied attacks marks the eighth time the US has conducted strikes on Houthi sites since January 12.
And it follows an almost-daily assault on Houthi missile launchers by US fighter jets and ship-based Tomahawks over the past week.
The chaotic wave of attacks and reprisals involving the United States, its allies and foes suggests that the retaliatory strikes haven’t deterred the Houthis from their campaign against Red Sea shipping, and that the broader regional war that the US has spent months trying to avoid is becoming closer to reality.
For months, the Houthis have attacked ships in the region’s waterways that they say are either linked to Israel or heading to Israeli ports.
They say their attacks aim to end the Israeli air-and-ground offensive in the Gaza Strip that was triggered by the Palestinian militant group Hamas’ October 7 attack in southern Israel. But any such links to the ships targeted in the rebel assaults have grown more tenuous as the attacks continue.
Greens ‘horrified’ and ‘deeply disturbed’
In a statement this evening, Green Party co-leaders Marama Davidson and James Shaw said they are “deeply disturbed” by the decision this afternoon to deploy NZDF staff to the Red Sea.
“Aotearoa New Zealand has a proud history of being a voice for peace on the global stage. Now more than ever we need that voice to be loud and strong — and our actions to be focused on de-escalation of violence, not fuelling further conflict where ordinary people will be affected most,” the party said.
“We are horrified at this Government’s decision to further inflame tensions in the Middle East by sending New Zealand Defence Force personnel to the Red Sea.”
Shaw and Davidson called the conflict in the Middle East a “regional power play between different state and non-state groups”, and intervening “is only likely to inflame tensions”.
“It is ordinary people who want to live their lives in peace, mums and dads who just want to make sure their kids have access to meals and can go to school, who suffer the most.”
The party said the decision to send NZDF personnel to the Red Sea should have been debated by elected representatives beforehand.
The Greens say they will now be “seeking an urgent debate on the issue as soon as possible”.
Additional reporting by the Associated Press