DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — French naval forces in January seized thousands of assault rifles, machine guns and anti-tank missiles in the Gulf of Oman coming from Iran and heading to Yemen's Houthi rebels, officials said Thursday.
While Iran denied being involved, images of the weapons released by the U.S. military's Central Command showed them to be similar to others captured by American forces in other shipments tied to Tehran.
The announcement comes as Iran faces increasing Western pressure over its shipment of drones to arm Russia during its war on Ukraine, as well as for its violent monthslong crackdown targeting protesters.
Regional tensions also have heightened after a suspected Israeli drone attack on a military workshop in the central Iranian city of Isfahan on Saturday. Previous cycles of violence since the collapse of Iran's nuclear deal with world powers have seen the Islamic Republic launch retaliatory attacks at sea.
The seizure occurred Jan. 15 in the Gulf of Oman, a body of water that stretches from the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf, through to the Arabian Sea and onto the Indian Ocean. CENTCOM described the interdiction as happening “along routes historically used to traffic weapons unlawfully from Iran to Yemen.”
A United Nations resolution bans arms transfers to Yemen's Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, who took the country's capital in late 2014 and have been at war with a Saudi-led coalition backing the country's internationally recognized government since March 2015.
The Wall Street Journal first reported on the seizure, identifying the forces involved as elite French special forces. Two officials with knowledge of the interdiction, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they did not have permission to speak publicly on the operation's details, similarly identified the French as carrying out the seizure.
The French military did not respond to requests for comment about capturing the weapons.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani in an online message rejected the assessment Tehran supplied the weapons on the vessel and described the accusations as “politically motivated.” Iran's mission to the United Nations told the AP that Tehran ”adheres to the resolutions adopted by the U.N. Security Council related to Yemen."
While France maintains a naval base in Abu Dhabi, it typically takes a quieter approach in the region while maintaining a diplomatic presence in Iran.
Iran has long denied arming the Houthis, though Western nations, U.N. experts and others have traced weaponry ranging from night-vision scopes, rifles and missiles back to Tehran. In November, the U.S. Navy said it found 70 tons of a missile fuel component hidden among bags of fertilizer aboard a ship bound to Yemen from Iran. Houthi ballistic missile fire has targeted Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in the past.
Images taken Wednesday by CENTCOM and analyzed by the AP, showed a variety of weapons on board an unidentified ship apparently docked at a port. The weapons appeared to include Chinese-made Type 56 rifles, Russian-made Molot AKS20Us and PKM-pattern machine guns. All have appeared in other seizures of weapons attributed to Iran.
CENTCOM said the seizure included more than 3,000 rifles and 578,000 rounds of ammunition. The released images also showed 23 container-launched anti-tank missiles, which also have turned up in other shipments tied to Iran.
The war in Yemen has deteriorated largely into a stalemate and spawned one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. However, Saudi-led airstrikes haven't been recorded in Yemen since the kingdom began a cease-fire at the end of March 2022, according to the Yemen Data Project.
That cease-fire expired in October despite diplomatic efforts to renew it. That has led to fears the war could again escalate. More than 150,000 people have been killed in Yemen during the fighting, including over 14,500 civilians.
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