US Navy Seals boarded a boat heading for Yemen and seized Iranian-made missile components and other weaponry bound for Houthi forces, in an operation in which two Seal commandos went missing, the US military has said.
US Central Command (Centcom) posted pictures of the missile parts on X, including what appeared to be the components of a complete small missile, rocket motors and guidance systems, as well as a photograph of the small cargo vessel that was allegedly carrying the arms.
The seizure followed US and UK airstrikes on Houthi positions in an effort to stop the Yemeni rebels’ attacks on shipping passing through the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. The incident, which Centcom said took place last Thursday, illustrated the potential for the conflict to continue to spread and draw in Iran directly, as the US and its allies seek to cut off the Houthis’ arms supplies.
In the latest of a string of attacks on Red Sea shipping, a Greek-owned cargo ship was hit by a missile off the coast of Yemen on Tuesday as it headed to the Suez canal. Greek officials said the Zografia, which remained navigable, had been sailing from Vietnam to Israel.
The Centcom statement said that arms seizure happened as its naval forces were conducting a “flag verification” of a dhow near the coast of Somalia. It said Navy Seal commandos based on the USS Lewis Puller, which is classed as an expeditionary mobile base vessel, executed a “complex” night-time boarding, with the support of helicopters and drones, and seized Iranian-made ballistic and cruise missiles components.
The cargo was alleged to include propulsion, guidance, and warheads for medium-range ballistic missiles, anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs), and parts for air defence systems.
“Initial analysis indicates these same weapons have been employed by the Houthis to threaten and attack innocent mariners on international merchant ships transiting in the Red Sea,” the US statement said, concluding that the dhow was “conducting illegal transport of advanced lethal aid from Iran to resupply Houthi forces in Yemen as part of the Houthis’ ongoing campaign of attacks against international merchant shipping.”
Two Navy Seals who were declared missing on Monday were involved in the operation, Centcom said.
According to US reports citing defence officials, the Seals approached the dhow in small special operations combat boats. At 8pm, as they were boarding the boat in high seas with 8-ft (2.4-metre) swells, one Seal commando was knocked into the sea by a high wave and another dived in after him, following protocol for such an incident. Both are still missing.
“We are conducting an exhaustive search for our missing teammates,” Gen Michael Erik Kurilla, the Centcom commander, said.
The dhow’s 14-strong crew was taken into custody and held while a decision was made on where they should be taken under international law, and the boat itself was deemed unsafe and sunk.
The US and UK have launched airstrikes over the past few days aimed at Houthi missile and drone sites and command centres, but a US official told CNN that those strikes had destroyed less than a third of the Houthis’ offensive capabilities. An American-owned, Marshall Islands-flagged container ship, the Gibraltar Eagle, was struck by a missile on Monday while in the Gulf of Aden, but not badly damaged.
Reuters reported on Tuesday that the US had carried out a new strike on Tuesday targeting Houthi anti-ship missiles.
EU member states have meanwhile given initial backing to create a European naval mission to help protect shipping from Houthi rebels, European diplomats said on Tuesday. Such a mission would reinforce a US-led naval taskforce, Prosperity Guardian, established last month, as western powers struggle to keep the route linking the Mediterranean, the Suez Canal, the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, open to global shipping.