(Bloomberg) -- UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak authorized joint military strikes with the US against Houthi rebels in Yemen and his Cabinet approved, a person familiar with the matter said, as the allies look to deter further attacks on commercial vessels in the Red Sea.

Sunak’s Cabinet approved the decision on a conference call Thursday, with airstrikes possible within hours, according to a person familiar with the matter who asked not to be identified discussing private conversations.

Sunak’s office declined to comment. White House spokespersons didn’t immediately comment.

The US and the UK earlier warned the Houthis of unspecified consequences if they kept up a string of attacks against vessels passing through the Red Sea, a vital shipping route. Earlier Thursday, the Houthis fired a ballistic missile in the Gulf of Aden, in what US officials said was the 27th attack on commercial shipping by the group since Nov. 19.

Strikes against the Iran-backed Houthis would mark a significant escalation in the weeks since Hamas militants attacked Israel on Oct. 7 and Israeli forces responded with a devastating air and ground campaign in the Gaza Strip. The Houthis began their harassment of commercial vessels soon after and have vowed not to let up until Israel ends its assault on Gaza.

Deterring the Houthis for good wouldn’t be easy. The group, which took control of the Yemeni capital Sana’a in 2014, has successfully withstood a Saudi Arabia-led military campaign to oust it that began a year later, and remains firmly entrenched. Previous efforts to deter attacks have also failed. Late last month, the US spearheaded the creation of a maritime task force — dubbed Operation Prosperity Guardian — whose goal was to provide security for vessels transiting the Red Sea. 

In a televised speech earlier Thursday, Houthi leader Abdul Malik Al-Houthi vowed a “big” response to the US and its allies if they proceeded with military action against his group.

“We’ll confront the American aggression,” he said. “Any American attack won’t go unpunished.” 

The Houthi action in the Red Sea had prompted many commercial shippers to direct their vessels around the southern tip of Africa rather than risk more Houthi attacks. That’s increased shipping times and threatened to snarl supply chains.

But the airstrikes would also be a gamble for the US and the UK, which have repeatedly said a top priority amid the Israel-Hamas fighting is to keep the conflict from spreading into a bigger regional war. And Sunak authorized the strikes despite concerns from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and other nations in the region that said such action would only further inflame tensions.

--With assistance from Jennifer Jacobs.

(Updates with additional details, background starting in third paragraph)

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