French Forces Seize Iranian-Supplied Weapons Bound for Yemen

France steps up military role in combating weapons smuggling.

Elite French special forces seized a boatload of Iranian-supplied weapons and ammunition bound for militants in Yemen as part of a deepening effort to contain Tehran, according to officials familiar with the operation.

On Jan. 15, the officials said, a French warship stopped a suspected smuggling ship off the Yemeni coast where the specially trained French team boarded the boat. On board, the officials said, the French military discovered more than 3,000 assault rifles, a half million rounds of ammunition and 20 antitank guided missiles. 

The operation, which was coordinated with the U.S. military, is the outgrowth of a more proactive French role in challenging weapons smuggling in the Middle East.

The naval operation was part of an international effort to enforce a United Nations arms embargo on weapons going to Yemen’s Houthis, a rebel group that controls swaths of the country, including the capital, San’a. Last year, the U.N. expanded the embargo’s scope in an effort to choke off the weapons flow.

Until recently, the U.S. military had taken the lead in hunting down weapons smugglers ferrying supplies to the Houthis. Now, France and the U.K. are playing a greater role.

Commander Tim Hawkins, a spokesman for the U.S. Fifth Fleet, the Navy’s regional command center in Bahrain, said the American military helped seize weapons on Jan. 15 in the Gulf of Oman, but declined to go into details.

“Over the past two months alone, we and our partners have prevented more than 5,000 weapons and 1.6 million rounds of ammunition from reaching Yemen,” he said. The French military declined Wednesday to comment on the operation.

The French operation is the latest in a series of weapons seizures that suggest that Iran continues to supply its Houthi allies in Yemen with firepower, despite an unofficial nine-month-old cease-fire that has created more room for political talks.

The U.S. and its allies have accused Tehran of supplying Houthi forces with missiles, drones and other weapons they have used to carry out hundreds of attacks targeting Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Yemeni forces trying to uproot the Iran-backed fighters. Tehran provides open political support for the Houthi forces, but has denied that it provides them with weapons in violation of U.N. resolutions.

The war in Yemen has stretched on for more than eight years. Houthi fighters seized the country’s capital in September 2014. Six months later, Saudi Arabia and a small coalition of allies launched a military campaign meant to force the Houthis from power. 

But the Saudi-led campaign failed to quickly end Houthi control. Instead, the two sides have been ensnared in a destabilizing war that triggered what the U.N. called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Thousands of civilians have been killed in the conflict. Nearly three-quarters of the country’s population rely on humanitarian aid to survive.

In early January, the U.S. Navy said it had seized more than 2,000 assault rifles on a ship in the Gulf of Oman. U.S. officials said then that the weapons were heading to Houthi forces in Yemen.

“The illegal flow of weapons from Iran through international waterways has a destabilizing effect on the region,” Gen. Michael Kurilla, head of U.S. Central Command, said at the time.

Last July, for the first time, the U.K. said that the Royal Navy had seized surface-to-air missiles and cruise-missile engines from a boat sailing off the southern coast of Iran. 

Last December, the U.S. Navy said it had seized 1,400 AK-47 rifles and more than 226,000 rounds of ammunition from a fishing vessel in the north Arabian Sea. The U.S. military said the vessel came from Iran. In a separate operation that same month, the U.S. Navy said it had seized more than 1.1 million rounds of ammunition from a fishing trawler operating between Iran and Yemen.

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