A large weapons cache headed for Somalia was discovered and seized by the French on March 20, authorities said.
It’s the second large weapons seizure in the region this month, and both may have been headed to Yemen from Iran. According to a U.S. assessment, the arms that were most recently seized originated in Iran, and their likely ultimate destination was Yemen, Cmdr. Kevin Stephens, a spokesman for U.S. 5th Fleet, told CNN.
Iran has been accused of arming Houthis — fellow Shiite Muslims fighting against the government in Yemen’s civil war — before. Stephens would not specify whether or not the United States believed this weapons shipment was headed to Houthi rebels.
Earlier this month, a similar arms cache was discovered off the coast of Oman. U.S. authorities said those weapons were believed to be initially sent from Iran and were probably intended for Houthi rebels in Yemen by way of Somalia, according to Lt. Ian McConnaughey with the U.S. Navy.
The March 20 discovery is the third such weapons seizure since September, Stephens said.
French forces spotted the ship carrying the arms as part of routine surveillance in the northern Indian Ocean.
On board the vessel, they found discovered “several hundred AK47 assault rifles, machine guns and anti-tank weapons,” according to a March 28 news release by the Combined Maritime Forces.
The CMF is a multinational naval partnership — which includes France — that helps police more than 3 million square miles of international waters.
“France has been supporting Combined Maritime Forces operations since their inception,” the CMF said.
The CMF routinely conducts boardings to determine the origin of unmarked vessels (so-called “flag verification boardings”) on a “regular basis,” McConnaughey said. That’s how the weapons discovered on March 7 were found.
The proxy fight
This latest weapons seizure would provide another example of forces inside Iran stoking sectarian tensions in the Middle East if the U.S. assessment proves correct.
For years, the Houthis have held sway in northern Yemen but lacked influence in the country’s Sunni-led government.
Iran has been accused before of attempting to arm the Shiite Houthis in a civil war that’s largely seen as a proxy fight between those two parties and Yemeni President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi, who is backed by Saudi Arabia and other Sunni gulf states.
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The Houthi rebels seized Yemen’s presidential palace in January of last year, temporarily forcing Hadi from Sanaa, the capital city.
He returned in large part with the help of airstrikes from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and others that joined to battle Houthis last March.