Two Navy SEALs who were reported missing at sea over the weekend were involved in an operation to seize Iranian-supplied weapons bound for Yemen’s Houthi militant group, the U.S. Central Command said Tuesday, offering new official details on the missing sailors that also raised the international stakes of the Houthis’ attacks on shipping vessels in the Red Sea.
On Jan. 11, Navy forces conducted a nighttime “flag verification” on a boat sailing near the coast of Somalia, as the ship did not have a country flag as required by international maritime law.
During the operation, Central Command said the Navy seized Iranian-made ballistic missiles and cruise missile components, the same types of weapons that have been used in Houthi attacks on ships traversing the Red Sea.
It’s the first time in recent months the U.S. has intercepted what it described as Iranian-supplied weapons bound for the Houthis—and the U.S. says the sale, supply or transfer of weapons to the Houthis violates a U.N. Security Council resolution and international law.
The two missing Navy SEALs, who have not been identified, were directly involved in this operation, and the military is “conducting an exhaustive search for our missing teammates,” said Gen. Michael Erik Kurilla, commander of the U.S. Central Command.
The ship was deemed unsafe and sunk by the Navy, and international law will determine the disposition of its 14 crewmembers, the military said.
Multiple media outlets reported last weekend the two missing sailors were Navy SEALs. One of the sailors was reportedly knocked into the ocean by high waves while boarding another ship and the other jumped in after him, per Navy protocols. Officials said the mission was unrelated to international efforts to protect ships traveling the Red Sea but it appeared possible it could be related to other routine operations that aim to halt ships with improper credentials or that may be carrying contraband. Tensions in the Red Sea and the waters around Yemen—which is across the Gulf of Aden from Somalia—have remained elevated as Iran-backed Houthi militants have launched attacks on commercial shipping vessels, a campaign the Houthis have said is meant to support Palestinians in Gaza. The strikes began after Gaza-based militant group Hamas—which is also aligned with Iran—attacked southern Israel in October, leading to an Israeli invasion of the Gaza Strip. The U.S. and U.K. launched airstrikes in Houthi-controlled parts of Yemen last week, prompting threats of retribution from the Houthis. On Friday, President Joe Biden said the U.S. had delivered a message to Iran about its support of the Houthis, claiming Iranian officials “know not to do anything.”
The U.S. condemned Iran over a ballistic missile strike in Iraq on Monday night, an attack Iran said was aimed at an Israeli “spy headquarters” but local authorities said killed four civilians. The U.S. called the strikes “reckless and imprecise.” Meanwhile, three armed drones were shot down on Tuesday over Erbil airport in Iraq, where U.S. and other international forces are stationed, Reuters reported.