Sri Lanka to join US-led Red Sea defense against Houthi rebels

Debt-ridden Sri Lanka’s navy is preparing to join a U.S.-led operation to protect merchant vessels sailing in the Red Sea against attacks by Houthi rebels, a Sri Lankan navy spokesman said on Tuesday.

The attacks by Houthi rebels have targeted commercial shipping vessels transiting through the critical Bab el-Mandeb Strait that links markets in Asia and Europe following the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas and Israel’s subsequent war against the militant group in Gaza.

The U.S. and its allies launched Operation Prosperity Guardian to protect ship traffic, and warships from the U.S., France, and the U.K. are patrolling the area.

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No date has been set for sending the Sri Lankan ships and the area they will patrol has not been finalized, said navy spokesman Capt. Gayan Wickramasuriya.

The decision to send the ships drew criticism from opposition lawmakers in the island nation. Opposition leader Sajith Premadasa blamed the government for spending LKR 250 million ($777,000) to send ships to fight Houthi rebels in the Red Sea when Sri Lankans are experiencing severe economic hardships at home.

American ships in Red Sea

In this image provided by the U.S. Navy, the amphibious dock landing ship USS Carter Hall and amphibious assault ship USS Bataan transit the Bab al-Mandeb strait on Aug. 9, 2023. (Mass Communications Spc. 2nd Class Moises Sandoval/U.S. Navy via AP)

State Minister of Defense Pramitha Tennakoon defended the move, saying the government wants to fulfill its “global responsibilities” and noting that “Sri Lanka is against any form of terrorism.”

He added that Sri Lanka would incur no additional costs by joining the operations, as the country’s ships are already patrolling its vast maritime area in the Indian Ocean.

Sri Lanka is struggling to get through the worst economic crisis in its history. The country declared bankruptcy in April 2022 with more than $83 billion in debt — more than half of it to foreign creditors. Its economy was plunged into crisis, with severe shortages of food, fuel and other necessities.

Strident public protests led to the ouster of former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The IMF agreed in March last year to a $2.9-billion bailout package.

Sri Lanka hopes to restructure $17 billion of its tens of billions of outstanding debt.

Over the past year, severe shortages of essentials like food, fuel and medicine have largely abated, and authorities have restored power supplies. But public dissatisfaction has grown over the government’s efforts to increase revenues by raising electricity bills and imposing heavy new income taxes on professionals and businesses.

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Last week, the government increased the rate of the valued added tax and extended it to cover many essential items, including cooking gas, fuel, medicine and others.

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