Yemen Rebels Seize UAE Ship in the Red Sea; Saudis Threaten Military Action to Release It

The Saudi-led coalition fighting against the Iran-backed Houthis said the Rwabee, hijacked off the port of Hodeidah, was carrying equipment from a shuttered field hospital, but the rebels accuse it of 'hostile acts'

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File photo: A view of the Red Sea port of Hodeidah, Yemen.
File photo: A view of the Red Sea port of Hodeidah, Yemen.Credit: Abduljabbar Zeyad/Reuters

Yemen’s Houthi rebels seized an Emirati-flagged ship in the Red Sea, which they say was engaged in "hostile acts," but Saudi Arabia said was carrying hospital equipment.

The Red Sea is a crucial route for international trade and energy shipments, and the Saudi-led military coalition battling the Houthis has accused the Iran-backed rebels of attacking shipping in one of the world's busiest maritime lanes.

The Rwabee was heading to the Saudi port of Jizan, just north of Yemen, from the Yemeni Red Sea island of Socotra when it was attacked just before midnight on Sunday, Saudi state news agency SPA reported, quoting coalition spokesman Brigadier General Turki al-Malki.

The ship was hijacked off the western Yemeni port of Hodeidah, the coalition said, accusing the Houthis of committing an act of “armed piracy.” The coalition asserted the ship carried medical equipment from a dismantled Saudi field hospital in the distant island of Socotra, without offering evidence.

“The Houthi militia must immediately release the ship, otherwise the coalition forces shall take all necessary measures and procedures to deal with this violation, including the use of force,” Brig. Gen. Turki al-Malki said in a statement.

The Houthis' military spokesman warned the Saudis of any "foolish" acts, adding the vessel was carrying military equipment and engaged in "hostile acts targeting the security and stability of the Yemeni people".

Yahia Sarei announced that rebel forces had seized what he described as an Emirati “military cargo ship,” which entered Yemen’s territorial waters “without any license.” 

SPA said it was carrying equipment from a shuttered field hospital.

First word of the Rwabee's seizure came from the British military’s United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations, which only said an attack targeted an unnamed vessel around midnight. The coordinates it offered corresponded to the Emirati-flagged landing craft Rwabee, which hadn’t given its location via satellite-tracking data for hours, according to the website

An employee at the vessel’s owners, Abu Dhabi-based Liwa Marine Services, told The Associated Press that the Rwabee appeared to have been the target but said they had no other information and declined to comment further. The employee did not give her name and hung up.

In late 2019 the Houthis briefly seized a Saudi-flagged ship and two South Korean vessels.

A similar incident happened in 2016 involving the Emirati vessel SWIFT-1, which had been sailing back and forth in the Red Sea between an Emirati troop base in Eritrea and Yemen when it came under attack by Houthi forces.

The Emirati government asserted the SWIFT-1 had carried humanitarian aid; UN experts later said of the claim that they were “unconvinced of its veracity.”

Reuters contributed to this report.

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