Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin hospitalized amid Middle East trips

Amid tensions in the Middle East, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has been hospitalized and unable to perform his duties since New Year's Day, a senior defense official said Friday.

No details were available on what ailed him. He remained hospitalized on Friday evening and it was not clear when he would be released, the source said.

Austin was admitted Monday night to Walter Reed National Army Medical Center for “complications following a recent elective medical procedure,” Pentagon press secretary Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder said in a statement Friday evening.

Austin is expected to resume his duties Friday, Ryder said.

A senior defense official said Kathleen Hicks, who was on leave, has assumed her duties.

The third in line for Pentagon civilian leadership, the office of undersecretary of defense for policy, has been filled as an interim acting position because nominee Derek Solett has not been confirmed by the U.S. Senate, the source said. Sasha Baker has been playing the role since last summer.

“At all times, the deputy defense secretary stood ready to exercise the secretary's powers and, if necessary, to act,” Ryder said in the statement.

Pentagon officials declined to elaborate on Austin's condition or say exactly what prevented him from performing his duties this week.

The Pentagon would not release details about the procedure or when it happened, and it would not say whether Austin was taken to the hospital by ambulance.

Asked why the Pentagon kept Austin's hospitalization secret, Ryder told NBC News, “It's a situation where a lot of factors have to be considered.”

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They include Austin's personal privacy, he said.

While Austin remains hospitalized, the U.S. has conducted a rare and controversial strike against a veteran Iranian-backed militant in Baghdad, bases with Americans have been hit at least six times, and the Biden administration is considering options for attacking Houthi militias. for their frequent attacks against ships in the Red Sea.

Tensions in the region center on the Israel-Hamas war. In October, the US Navy dispatched two carrier strike groups to the eastern Mediterranean in response.

Iran-backed Houthi militias based in Yemen, displeased by Israel's attacks on Palestinian communities, have been attacking container ships in the Red Sea.

On December 30, a US Navy destroyer shot down two Houthi missiles after it responded to an attack on a container ship, causing no injuries or damage, military officials said at the time. The next day, Houthi rebels opened fire on naval helicopters responding to a container ship distress call. The marines returned fire, sinking three small boats and killing the crew, officials said.

The US is wary of further regional trouble as Iran-backed Hezbollah militants in Lebanon exchange weapons with Israel on its northern border.

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