MANAMA, Bahrain — The U.S. has seized an illicit shipment of arms, including machine guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, that officials said originated in Iran and were intended for Houthi rebels in Yemen.
It was the third seizure of weapons by international naval forces in the Arabian Sea in a month, U.S. 5th Fleet said in a statement. In all three instances, the weapons were assessed by U.S. officials to have originated in Iran.
Iran backs the Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen, who are fighting the internationally recognized government, which is backed by a coalition led by Saudi Arabia, Iran’s chief rival in the region. A cease-fire is set to take effect on Sunday, followed by peace talks in Kuwait.
Last year, the U.N. Security Council imposed an arms embargo against the Houthis. Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies have repeatedly accused Iran of flouting the ban, something Tehran has always denied.
The coastal patrol ship USS Sirocco “intercepted and seized” a cache of weapons March 28th in a “small, stateless dhow,” 5th Fleet spokesman Cmdr. Kevin Stephens said in a statement. The shipment included 1,500 AK-47s, 200 RPG launchers and 21 .50-caliber machine guns.
The guided-missile destroyer USS Gravely assisted in the seizure after the weapons were discovered by Sirocco’s boarding team, Stephens said. The dhow and its crew were allowed to depart once the weapons were seized. The weapons were in U.S. custody, Stephens said.
Eight days earlier, the French navy destroyer FS Provence seized a shipment of arms that included nearly 2,000 AK-47s, 64 Dragunov sniper rifles and nine anti-tank missiles.
The Royal Australian Navy’s HMAS Darwin intercepted a dhow on Feb. 27 carrying a similar cache of arms.
In early March, a Houthi official rejected a suggestion by an Iranian military official that Iran might send military advisers to support the Houthis, the Reuters news agency reported. Houthi representatives were in Saudi Arabia at the time for talks.
The Houthi leader has said the rebels were prepared to continue fighting if the latest round of talks failed. More than 6,000 people have been killed in the conflict, which also involves al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. The Islamic State also has sought to exploit the chaos in Yemen to establish a foothold.
“We continue to operate and conduct maritime operations in the Arabian sea,” Stephens said. “We are continuing to do what we have been doing and continue to expect to have success. It’s clear these operations are making a difference.”