Arab coalition forces waging a military campaign against Houthi fighters in Yemen seized an Iranian boat loaded with weapons in the Arabian Sea on its way to deliver supplies to the group, the Saudi-led alliance said on Wednesday.
The announcement was made a day after tribal fighters backed by the coalition won control of a strategic dam in central Yemen from Houthi forces following weeks of fighting in the area east of the capital Sanaa.
The coalition, which also includes Bahrain, Qatar, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, has been battling the Iranian-backed Houthis for more than six months, trying to shore up President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s government and contain what the Gulf Arab states see growing Tehran’s influence in their backyard.
As part of the campaign, Saudi-led naval forces have imposed a near-blockade to prevent weapons supplies from reaching the Houthis, resulting in long delays and mandatory searches for shippers in the region.
A coalition statement said 14 Iranian sailors were detained on the boat, which was carrying 18 anti-armoured Concourse shells, 54 anti-tank shells, shell-battery kits, firing guidance systems, launchers and binoculars’ batteries.
“The Command of the Coalition … foiled an attempt to smuggle weapons destined to the Houthi militias, on an Iranian fishing boat,” the statement said, adding the vessel was seized on Saturday some 150 miles off Salalah in southern Oman.
There was no immediate comment from Iran.
The coalition has long accused Iran of arming the Houthis, who seized control of the country starting in September last year, claiming they were out to fight corruption and to force Hadi to bring them into the government.
The seizure of the Marib dam is the biggest success of Yemeni militia men fighting alongside Gulf troops in several weeks. Together they have undertaken an armed push toward the Houthi-controlled capital Sanaa 110 km (70 miles) west of the dam, but progress has been slowed by landmines and stiff resistance from Houthi forces ensconced in rugged mountains.
Pictures printed on the front pages of Gulf dailies showed the foreign troops and local tribesmen planting the flags of the UAE, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia over the dam.
But in pro-Hadi fighters’ first significant loss in weeks, a district in the southwestern Taiz province fell to the Houthis and their allies in Yemen’s army on Tuesday.
Residents and local officials also said they (who?) appeared to be mobilizing their forces for a southern push in the nearby area of Kirsh, about 75 km (46 miles) from Aden.
Six months of civil war and hundreds of coalition air strikes have killed more than 5,400 people in Yemen, according to the United Nations, and exacerbated already widespread hunger and suffering.
The coalition on Wednesday again denied responsibility for an air strike on a wedding party in Taiz province two days earlier which medics said killed 131 people, in one of the deadliest attacks on civilians in the war.
“No air strikes were launched in that area in the past three days … it’s not true that every explosion that happens in Yemen is caused by the coalition,” alliance spokesman Brigadier General Ahmed Asseri said in comments carried by the UAE’s state news agency WAM.
Residents in the village of al-Wahijah said that two missiles blasted through tents where a local man affiliated with the Houthi group was holding his wedding reception. Reuters