US arrests smuggling vessel, UK seizes drugs in Middle Eastern waters

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — The U.S. Navy said on Sunday it seized a boat in the Gulf of Oman carrying fertilizer used to make explosives that was caught smuggling weapons into Yemen last year . The British Royal Navy said it confiscated 2,295 pounds of illegal drugs in the same waters.

The bans were just the latest in the volatile waters of the Persian Gulf as US and UK authorities step up seizures of contraband during the bitter conflict in Yemen and ongoing drug trafficking in the region.

The US Navy’s 5th Fleet based in the Middle East said its guided-missile destroyer USS Cole and its patrol ships stopped and searched the sailboat, a stateless fishing dhow, which was sailing from Iran on a route of smuggling well-worn maritime weapons into war-ravaged Yemen. Tuesday. US forces found 40 tons of urea fertilizer, known to be a key ingredient in improvised explosive devices, hidden on board.

Authorities said the vessel was previously seized off the coast of Somalia and found last year loaded with thousands of assault rifles and rocket launchers, among other weapons. UN experts say weapons with such technical characteristics likely come from Iran to support Houthi rebels. The navy handed over the ship, cargo and Yemeni crew to the Yemeni Coast Guard earlier this week.

Yemen is rife with small arms that have been smuggled through the country’s poorly controlled ports during years of conflict. Since 2015, Houthi rebels backed by Iran have been battling a Saudi-led military coalition for control of the nation. Iran says it supports the rebels politically but denies arming them, despite evidence to the contrary.

Smuggled weapons helped the Houthis gain an advantage over the Saudi-led coalition during the seven-year war. The violence has escalated dramatically over the past week amid stalled international attempts to broker peace. Following a deadly rebel-claimed drone attack on Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Saudi warplanes pounded the northern rebel-held province of Saada, hitting a prison and killing more than 80 inmates.

Officials also revealed on Sunday that a British Royal Navy vessel seized a large amount of illegal drugs worth some $26 million from a boat sailing in the Gulf of Oman on January 15.

HMS Montrose confiscated 1,461 pounds of heroin, 191 pounds of methamphetamine and 641 pounds of hashish and marijuana, the Joint Maritime Task Force said in a statement.

The task force did not specify where the drugs came from, who manufactured them or their final destination. But Iran over the past decade has seen an explosion in the use of methamphetamine, known locally as “shisheh” or “glass” in Farsi, which has spread to neighboring countries.

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