UNITED NATIONS — The U.N. Security Council on Friday condemned the seizure of a United Arab Emirates ship and demanded that Yemen's Houthi rebels immediately release the vessel and its crew.
A press statement from the U.N.'s most powerful body called on all sides "to resolve the issue quickly and underlined the importance of freedom of navigation in the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea, in accordance with international law."
The seizure of the UAE-flagged Rwabee ship on Jan. 3 by the Iranian-backed Houthis coincided with a massive memorial in Tehran on the second anniversary of the U.S. drone stroke that killed a top Iranian general, Qassem Soleimani, in Baghdad. The Houthis said they seized the ship off the coast of Hodeida, Yemen's main port, because it was carrying military equipment.
The Security Council "underscored the necessity of ensuring the crew's safety and well-being until their release."
On Thursday, the U.N. mission monitoring implementation of a cease-fire and the withdrawal of rival forces from Hodeida and the two smaller ports of Salif and Ras Issa tweeted that as part of its routine weekly patrol it visited the port of Salif and neighboring areas where its team "saw the Rwabee vessel from a distance and spoke to its crew members." It gave no details.
The taking of the Rwabee marked the latest assault in the Red Sea, a crucial route for international trade and energy shipments.
Yemen has been engulfed in civil war since 2014 when the Houthis took the capital, Sanaa, and much of the northern part of the country, forcing the government to flee to the south, then to Saudi Arabia. A Saudi-led coalition that included the UAE and was backed at the time by the United States, entered the war months later, in 2015, seeking to restore the government to power.
The conflict has since become a regional proxy war that has killed tens of thousands of civilians and fighters. The war has also created the world's worst humanitarian crisis, leaving millions suffering from food and medical care shortages and pushing the country to the brink of famine.
A statement from the Saudi-led coalition accused the Houthis of committing an act of "armed piracy" involving the Rwabee, and said the ship was carrying medical equipment from a dismantled Saudi field hospital in Yemen's distant island of Socotra, without offering evidence.
After the Houthis showed video footage from the Rwabee of military-style inflatable rafts, trucks and other vehicles on the vessel and what appeared to be a collection of rifles inside a container, Saudi state television alleged the Houthis had transferred the weapons onto the ship.
In Wednesday's statement, the Security Council reiterated its condemnation of the increasing number of incidents off the coast of Yemen, including attacks on civilian and commercial ships, "which pose a significant risk to the maritime security of vessels in the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea."
The British-drafted council statement also urged all parties to de-escalate the situation in Yemen and to "engage constructively" with U.N. special envoy Hans Grundberg who is trying to restart political talks to end the seven-year conflict in the Arab world's poorest nation.