The U.S. Navy recently seized a cache of weapons aboard a stateless vessel in the North Arabian Sea, Pentagon officials said Sunday, marking another mission by American forces to foil illegal Iranian weapons shipments to rebel groups in Yemen.
The Navy’s Fifth Fleet said the two-day operation on May 6 and 7 involved the seizure of “dozens of advanced Russian-made, anti-tank guided missiles, thousands of Chinese Type 56 assault rifles, and hundreds of PKM machine guns, sniper rifles and rocket-propelled grenades launchers,” along with the other arms and military equipment. Crews aboard the U.S. guided-missile cruiser USS Monterey discovered the weapons after boarding the ship in international waters for a routine flag verification, officials said.
“Monterey provided more than 36 hours of over watch and security for its boarding teams and the interdicted vessel throughout the two-day operation,” the Navy said in a statement Sunday. “After all illicit cargo was removed, the dhow was assessed for seaworthiness, and after questioning, its crew was provided food and water before being released.”
“The U.S. Navy conducts routine patrols in the region to ensure the free flow of commerce for legitimate traffic, disrupt the transport of illicit cargo that often funds terrorism and unlawful activity, and safeguard the rules-based international order,” the Fifth Fleet said.
The Navy said that the original source and destination of the weapons are still under review, and the material is still being inspected by U.S. authorities. But a U.S. defense official told The Associated Press on Sunday that initial signs suggest the unmarked vessel set sail from Iran and was headed to Yemen, where Iran-backed Houthi rebels are battling government forces backed by a Saudi Arabia-led coalition.
Iran for years has sought to get around a United Nations arms embargo by covertly shipping weapons to the war-torn country. The U.S., which maintains a major naval presence in the North Arabian Sea, has previously seized caches of weapons and other military equipment aboard stateless vessels headed for Yemen.
President Biden earlier this year formally ended American support for Saudi Arabia’s offensive military operations in Yemen amid strong bipartisan opposition in Washington to U.S. involvement in the conflict. More than 130,000 people have been killed in the war in Yemen since 2014, according to international estimates.
In addition to backing the Houthis in Yemen, Iran also backs militias operating in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere.