WASHINGTON/SANAA: Yemeni authorities have seized a ship in the nation’s territorial waters carrying explosives and weapons, including anti-aircraft missiles, the state news agency reported Tuesday. The U.S. said the ship came from Iran.
The report said Yemen’s coast guard intercepted the ship last week in an operation coordinated with the U.S. navy. It did not say why the interception was not announced earlier.
The report said the vessel’s eight crew members were Yemenis.
In Washington, Pentagon spokesman George Little told reporters that crew members said the ship came from Iran. He said the ship was seen operating “erratically” in Yemeni waters “and so a routine boarding [was] conducted,” with U.S. support.
The cargo was inspected, and it included weapons, he said.
An official told Reuters the intercepted shipment was believed to have been from Iran and destined for insurgents, likely Houthis.
Analysts and diplomats believe that the ascent of the Houthis, named after their leaders’ family, has turned Yemen into a new front in a long struggle between Iran and Western powers and the Arab regimes they support.
Tackling lawlessness in the impoverished Arabian Peninsula state is an international priority. The United States views Yemen as a front line in its struggle against Al-Qaeda.
Hundreds of Al-Qaeda-linked militants arrived in southern Yemen Tuesday to reinforce Islamist fighters facing a major government offensive following the breakdown of talks to free three Western hostages, an official and residents said.
Airstrikes against militant targets in the Al-Qaeda stronghold of Al-Manaseh and ambushes by the Islamist fighters after Monday’s army assault killed at least six insurgents and 14 soldiers, including 11 killed by a suicide bomber.
More than 2,500 people had fled Manaseh, and were housed in schools in nearby villages and towns, the official said.
About 8,000 soldiers took part in the offensive on Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s bastion in Al-Bayda province, south of the capital Sanaa, a local official told Reuters.
The Islamist reinforcements were mostly from Abyan province, scene of heavy fighting in May 2012 that drove AQAP fighters from several towns, the official and local residents said.
A Finnish couple and an Austrian man, who were studying Arabic in Yemen, were snatched last month by tribesmen in the capital Sanaa. They were later sold to Al-Qaeda members, and taken to Al-Bayda, a Yemeni official told Reuters this month.
The assault on Manaseh began a day after representatives of the 15 countries on the U.N. Security Council flew to Yemen in a show of support for a U.S.-backed power transfer deal in danger of faltering and plunging the country further into chaos.
Militants linked to AQAP, which U.S. officials believe is one of the most dangerous and active branches of the global network, were emboldened by widespread chaos in Yemen after an uprising in 2011 against former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
There have been dozens of killings of security and military officials by suspected Al-Qaeda gunmen in the past year, suggesting AQAP remains resilient despite increased U.S. drone strikes and an onslaught by government forces.