Yemeni rebels have seized an Emirati-flagged vessel in the Red Sea, with the insurgents and the Saudi-led coalition giving contrasting explanations for the latest escalation in a seven-year war.
The coalition, fighting in support of Yemen’s internationally recognised government, said on Monday that the vessel was carrying medical supplies but the rebels said they had seized “a military cargo ship with military equipment”.
The conflict has displaced millions and created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, according to the United Nations.
“The militia must promptly release the ship, or the coalition forces will undertake all necessary measures and procedures to handle this violation, including the use of force if necessary,” a coalition spokesperson, Turki al-Malki, said.
In a statement cited by the official Saudi Press Agency, he said the vessel was travelling from Yemen’s Socotra island, off the country’s south coast. It was returning to the Saudi city of Jazan carrying medical supplies after finishing a mission to set up a field hospital on the island, Malki said.
“The boat named Rawabi, bearing the flag of the United Arab Emirates, was pirated and kidnapped at 23.57 (20.57 GMT) Sunday while off Hodeidah province,” he said.
There was no immediate comment from the United Arab Emirates.
The Houthis confirmed they had seized an Emirati-flagged vessel in the Red Sea but their military spokesperson, Yahya Sare’e, said it had entered Yemeni waters without authorisation and was carrying out “hostile acts”.
Sare’e tweeted: “The successful and unprecedented operation is part of the fight against [coalition] aggression.”
The Houthis released videos showing what they claimed was ammunition on board the ship, underlining their belief that the United Arab Emirates is behind the recent assaults in Shabwa governorate that have forced the Houthis to make a rare territorial retreat.
In the past week, UAE-backed forces seized the Usaylan district in Shabwa, Yemen’s most oil rich area.
The UAE has supported the Southern Transitional Council, a separatist group strong in the south of Yemen that advocates for the country to be once again divided between north and south.
The episode underlines how the UAE remains intricately involved in the war in Yemen despite claims two years ago that it had pulled back from the fighting.
Hans Grundberg, the UN special envoy, last week said the increase in fighting “undermines the prospects of reaching a sustainable political settlement to end the conflict in Yemen”.
He added: “The escalation in recent weeks is among the worst we have seen in Yemen for years and the threat to civilian lives is increasing.”
On 25 December, the coalition launched a “large-scale” assault on Yemen after missiles fired by the rebels killed two people in the kingdom, the first such deaths in three years.
In November, the rebels took control of a large area south of Hodeidah, a key Red Sea port where the warring sides agreed on a ceasefire in 2018, after loyalist forces withdrew.
In late November, the United Nations said the war would have killed 377,000 people by the year’s end, both directly and indirectly through hunger and disease.