Marlin Luanda on fire after Houthi attack
Marlin Luanda on fire after Houthi attackReuters/EYEPRESS Images

The European Union on Monday officially launched a mission to help protect international shipping in the Red Sea from attacks by Yemen's Houthi rebels, EU chief Ursula von der Leyen said, according to a report in the AFP news agency.

"Europe will ensure freedom of navigation in the Red Sea, working alongside our international partners," the European Commission president wrote on X.

The Iranian-backed Houthi rebels have upped their attacks on vessels since the start of Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza.

An EU official said Friday that the bloc aims to have the mission -- called Aspides, Greek for shield -- up and running in a "few weeks" with at least four vessels.

The overall commander will be Greek, while the lead officer in operational control at sea will be Italian, the EU official said.

Italian top diplomat Antonio Tajani confirmed the launch during a meeting of foreign ministers in Brussels, calling it "an important step towards common European defense."

So far France, Germany, Italy and Belgium have said they plan to contribute ships, according to AFP.

The EU says the mandate of the mission, set initially for one year, is limited to protecting civilian shipping in the Red Sea and that no attacks will be carried out "on Yemeni soil".

In the wake of the uptick in Houthi attacks, the US formed a coalition, made up of more than 20 countries, aimed at safeguarding commercial traffic in the Red Sea from attacks by the Houthis.

In mid-January, with support from other countries, the US and Britain targeted just under 30 Houthi locations with 150 different weapons. The two countries have continued to strike Houthi targets since.