US warships heads to Yemeni waters; could block Iran weapons
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt is steaming toward the waters off Yemen to beef up security and join other American ships that are prepared to intercept any Iranian vessels carrying weapons to the Houthi rebels fighting in Yemen.
Navy officials said Monday that the USS Theodore Roosevelt was moving through the Arabian Sea. The U.S. Navy has been beefing up its presence in the Gulf of Aden and the southern Arabian Sea amid reports that a convoy of about eight Iranian ships is heading toward Yemen and possibly carrying arms for the Houthis. Navy officials said there are about nine U.S. warships in the region, including cruisers and destroyers carrying teams that can board and search other vessels.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the ship movement on the record.
The Houthis are battling government-backed fighters in an effort to take control of the country. The U.S. has been providing logistical and intelligence support to Saudi Arabia-led coalition launching airstrikes against the Houthis. That air campaign is now in its fourth week.
Cmdr. Kevin Stephens, a spokesman for the 5th Fleet in Bahrain, said that with multiple ships in the southern Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, the mission off Yemen would not reduce the Navy’s ability to conduct air operations over Iraq, where U.S. and coalition aircraft are carrying out airstrikes against the Islamic State.
“The move is in response to the current instability in Yemen,” Stephens told Stars and Stripes. “The Roosevelt and the guided missile cruiser USS Normandy (CG 60) will add a stronger presence in the Gulf of Aden and will work with other U.S. and coalition forces to conduct maritime security operations to ensure the vital sea lanes in the southern Red Sea, Bab-el-Mandeb and the Gulf of Aden remain open and safe.
The U.S. Navy generally conducts consensual boardings of ships when needed, including to combat piracy around Africa and the region. So far, however, U.S. naval personnel have not boarded any Iranian vessels since the Yemen conflict began, and Stephens said the latest moves have “nothing to do with any specific nation.”
“They are to deter illegal activity and to reassure commercial merchant traffic,” he said. “The freedom of navigation through international waterways is critical to the international community. Closure of any strategic waterway or harassment of shipping would have worldwide economic and national security consequences.”
White House spokesman Josh Earnest would not comment specifically on any Navy movements in Yemeni waters, but said the U.S. has concerns about Iran's "continued support for the Houthis.
"We have seen evidence that the Iranians are supplying weapons and other armed support to the Houthis in Yemen. That support will only contribute to greater violence in that country. These are exactly the kind of destabilizing activities that we have in mind when we raise concerns about Iran's destabilizing activities in the Middle East."
He said "the Iranians are acutely aware of our concerns for their continued support of the Houthis by sending them large shipments of weapons."
Stars and Stripes reporter Hendrick Simoes in Bahrain and Associated Press reporters Lolita Baldor and Jim Kuhnhenn in Washington contributed to this report.