Houthi rebels say the Rwabee were carrying military equipment, accusing the UN of siding with “murderers who violate international laws”.
Yemeni Houthi rebels have rejected a UN request to release an Emirati-flagged vessel they seized earlier this month, along with its 11-member crew, saying the vessel was carrying “military property”.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) described the Rwabee as a “civilian cargo ship” leased by a Saudi company that was in international waters carrying equipment for use in a field hospital.
Houthi official Hussein al-Azzi claimed he was carrying military assets. “The Rwabee ship was not carrying…toys for children but weapons for extremists,” he told Houthis Al Masirah television.
The UN Security Council on Friday demanded the “immediate release” of the Rwabee and her crew and stressed “the importance of freedom of navigation in the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea”, a strategic route for international shipping.
In a statement drafted by the United Kingdom and adopted unanimously, the 15 members of the Security Council demanded “the immediate release of the ship and its crew” and underlined “the need to ensure the safety and well- be part of the crew”.
He also called on “all parties to de-escalate the situation in Yemen”, including by working with the UN special envoy to return to the negotiating table.
Al-Azzi responded by accusing the UN of siding with “murderers who violate international law”.
The Rwabee “belongs to a country participating in the aggression against our people and at war with Yemen, and illegally entered (Yemeni) territorial waters”, he said.
A Saudi-led military coalition intervened in Yemen in March 2015 to support the internationally recognized government after the Houthis took the capital, Sanaa, the previous year.
The Iran-backed Houthis seized the Rwabee on January 3, off the Red Sea port of Hodeidah, then released a video allegedly showing military equipment on board, including military-style inflatable rafts, trucks and other vehicles and what appeared to be a collection of guns.
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Yahia Sare’e, a Houthi military spokesman, said it was “quite obvious today that the information that this vessel was carrying a civilian field hospital is not correct. This is clearly military equipment.
A statement from the Saudi-led coalition accused the Houthis of committing an act of “armed piracy” and said the ship was transporting medical equipment from a dismantled Saudi field hospital on the remote island of Socotra in Yemen, without providing evidence.
Saudi state television accused the Houthis of transferring weapons to the ship.
The United Arab Emirates is part of the Saudi-led coalition, although it withdrew its troops in 2019. In a letter to the UN, Abu Dhabi noted that the Rwabee’s crew consisted of 11 members , including seven Indians and others from Ethiopia, Indonesia, Myanmar and the Philippines.
The Security Council has condemned the increasing number of incidents off the coast of Yemen, including attacks on civilian and commercial vessels, “which pose a significant risk to the maritime safety of vessels in the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea”.
The United Nations Mission in Support of the Hodeidah Accord (UNMHA) said the port was vital for the impoverished country. UNMHA, which aims to preserve a 2018 ceasefire for the port, has requested a warrant to undertake inspections to ensure it is not militarized by the Houthi group.
Yemen has been embroiled in civil war since 2014, when the Houthis took the capital, Sanaa, and much of the north of the country, forcing the government to flee south and then to Saudi Arabia.
The United Nations has said it will need some $3.9 billion this year to help around 16 million people in the war-torn country.