The US Navy yesterday said that it found about 70 tonnes of a component of missile fuel hidden among bags of fertilizer aboard a ship bound to Yemen from Iran, the first such seizure in Yemen’s war as a ceasefire there has broken down.
The navy said that the amount of ammonium perchlorate discovered could fuel more than a dozen medium-range ballistic missiles, the same weapons Yemen’s Iranian-backed Houthi rebels have used to target forces allied to the country’s internationally recognized government and the Saudi Arabian-led coalition that supports it.
The apparent rearming effort comes as Iran has threatened Saudi Arabia, the US and other nations over the protests calling for the overthrow the Islamic Republic’s government.
Tehran blames foreign powers for fomenting the protests, which have seen at least 344 people killed and 15,820 arrested amid a widening crackdown on dissent.
The Houthis could not be immediately reached for comment.
Iran’s mission to the UN did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“This type of shipment and just the massive volume of explosive material is a serious concern because it is destabilizing,” Commander Timothy Hawkins, a spokesman for the US Navy’s Middle East-based 5th Fleet, told reporters. “The unlawful transport of weapons from Iran to Yemen leads to instability and violence.”
The USCGC John Scheuerman and guided-missile destroyer the USS The Sullivans stopped a traditional wooden sailing vessel known as a dhow in the Gulf of Oman on Nov. 8, the navy said.
During a weeklong search, sailors discovered bags of ammonium perchlorate hidden inside of what initially appeared to be a shipment of about 100 tonnes of urea.
Urea, a fertilizer, also can be used to manufacture explosives.
The dhow was so weighed down by the shipment that it posed a hazard to nearby shipping in the Gulf of Oman, a route that leads from the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf, out to the Indian Ocean.
The navy sank the ship with much of the material still on board due to the danger, Hawkins said.
The Sullivans handed over the four Yemeni crew members to the country’s internationally recognized government.
Asked how the navy knew to stop the ship, Hawkins only said that it knew through “multiple means” that the vessel carried the fuel and that it came from Iran bound for Yemen.
He declined to elaborate.
“Given the fact it was on a route usually used to smuggle illicit weapons and drugs from Iran to Yemen really tells you what you need to know,” Hawkins said. “It clearly wasn’t intended for good.”
The Houthis seized Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, in September 2014 and forced the internationally recognized government into exile.
A Saudi Arabian-led coalition armed with US weaponry and intelligence entered the war on the side of Yemen’s exiled government in March 2015.
Years of inconclusive fighting has pushed the Arab world’s poorest nation to the brink of famine.
A UN arms embargo has prohibited weapons transfers to the Houthis since 2014.
Despite that, Iran has been accused of transferring rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, missiles and other weaponry to the Houthis via dhow shipments.
Although Iran denies arming the Houthis, independent and UN experts, and Western nations have traced components seized abroad detained vessels to Iran.
A six-month ceasefire in Yemen’s war expired last month, despite diplomatic efforts to renew it. That has led to fears the war could again escalate.
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