Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen have released pictures and video footage of weapons, vehicles, small boats, and other military cargo onboard the landing craft-type cargo vessel Rwabee, which the group seized in the Red Sea overnight. Saudi Arabian officials said this ship, which is flagged in the United Arab Emirates, was bringing home materiel from a disused military hospital on the island of Socotra in the Arabian Sea.
The imagery the Houthis have released shows around a dozen of military trucks of various types, including at least one U.S.-made Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Truck (HEMTT) variant and a Humvee with a large dish typically associated with ground-based satellite communications terminals. There are also a pair of rigid-hulled inflatable boats (RHIB) and containers and crates with other items, such as AK-type rifles and magazines for those guns, body armor, and helmets.
What is seen appears to be at least broadly in line with the items a representative of the Saudi Arabian-led coalition fighting the Houthis had earlier said were onboard the Rwabee. "The cargo included ambulances, medical equipment, communication devices, tents, a field kitchen, field laundry units, and technical and security support equipment," according to the Saudi Gazette newspaper, citing a statement from Saudi Brig. Gen. Turki Al-Malki, the coalition's top spokesperson.
"The ship was conducting a maritime mission from Socotra Island to Jazan Port [also written Jizan] when it was targeted," according to that same report. "It carried hospital equipment that were used to operate the Saudi Field Hospital on Socotra."
The Houthis have accused the ship of entering Yemeni waters with hostile intent, leading to its seizure off the country's coast near the port of Hodeidah. "The Yemeni armed forces are seizing an Emirati military cargo ship with military equipment on board that entered Yemeni waters without any license and engaged in hostilities targeting the security and stability of the Yemeni people," Yahya Sare'e, a Houthi spokesperson.
"The cargo ship Rwabee sailing under the flag of the United Arab Emirates was targeted through piracy and hijacking while sailing off the coast of Al-Hudaydah governorate,” Saudi Brig. Gen. Al-Malki had said. “The militia must promptly release the ship, or the Coalition Forces will undertake all necessary measures and procedures to handle this violation, including the use of force if necessary."
The Houthis have launched various kinds of attacks on commercial and military vessels in the Red Sea, as well as the Gulf of Aden, including some involving explosive-laden unmanned suicide boats, since 2015. That year, the group unseated the internationally recognized government in Yemen. That, in turn, touched off a grueling conflict with the Saudi coalition that has produced accusations of atrocities on both sides.
However, actual Houthi seizures of ships have been far less common, This is the first known instance of such an operation since 2019, when the group briefly held a South Korean-flagged oil drilling rig and a Saudi Arabian-flagged tugboat. This appears to be possibly the only time the Houthis have taken control of a ship carrying military materiel belonging to the Saudi coalition, as well.
In October 2016, the Houthis did severely damage a catamaran-hulled high-speed vessel that had been operated by the U.S. Navy for a time under the name Swift before being leased to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which that country said was on a humanitarian mission at the time. The Yemeni rebels claimed that the ship was in fact being used to move military personnel and materiel, an assertion that has not been substantiated. The Houthis also fired anti-ship missiles at a U.S. Navy's Arleigh Burke class destroyer, the USS Mason, but did not hit that ship, that same month.
Whatever the exact truth behind the Houthis decision to take over the Rwabee might be, it does also follow the U.S. Navy's seizure of approximately 1,400 AK-type rifles and some 226,600 rounds of ammunition last month. That cargo was found during a search of a stateless fishing dhow in the Arabian Sea, and American officials said the vessel was most likely carrying this materiel from Iran to Yemen.
In addition, the Saudi coalition continues to enforce significant restrictions on the ability of commercial ships and aircraft to enter Yemen, especially areas under Houthi control. The government in Riyadh has said it is maintaining this posture, which some have described as a blockade that mainly impacts innocent civilians, at the behest of the internationally recognized and Saudi-backed Yemeni government. This is among the bigger sticking points between the Saudis, who are under increasing diplomatic pressure from the U.S. government over their operations in Yemen, and Houthis in negotiations over potential peace plans.
In the meantime, the Saudi coalition and its Yemeni partners continue to fight the Houthis. The Houthis have shown no sign of backing down even in the face of new offensives against them and also continue to launch drone and missile attacks against military and civilian targets in neighboring Saudi Arabia.
The seizure of the Rwabee and its cargo is only likely to further frustrate progress toward any kind of settlement, or even a new ceasefire, between the Houthis and the Saudi coalition.
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