American military personnel recovered Iranian-made missile warheads and related components during a ship-boarding mission near Somalia last week that disrupted the weapons resupply of militants in Yemen but left two elite Navy SEALs lost at sea, U.S. defense officials said.

As The Washington Post and other media previously reported, Thursday’s nighttime operation, backed by helicopters and drones, took place in rough seas. When one of the SEALs slipped from a ladder while attempting to climb aboard the dhow, the second, having witnessed their comrade fall into the water, dove in to help, officials have said. Both were swept away by the powerful swells. Neither has been publicly identified.

As rescue operations began, other troops carried out a search of the boat, which had a crew of 14, according to a Tuesday statement by U.S. Central Command. They were taken into custody. The dhow was deemed “unsafe” and was sunk, according to the statement.

The seized items included Iranian-made ballistic and cruise missile warheads, propulsion and guidance systems, and air defense components. An “initial analysis” indicates the weapons match those the Houthis have used to target ships on the Red Sea, according to the statement, which accuses Iran and others involved of violating international law and a related U.N. resolution.

It is unclear where the vessel originated and who was on board. “Disposition of the 14 dhow crew members is being determined in accordance with international law,” the statement said. The operation marked the first U.S. Navy seizure of advanced Iranian-made ballistic components since 2019, the statement added. The Associated Press first reported some details of the seizure.

The episode has underscored a persistent challenge facing the Biden administration and its international partners as they vow to hold Yemen’s Houthis — and the militant group’s chief backer, Iran — accountable for a steep rise in attacks that have significantly disrupted commercial shipping in the region. U.S. and British forces struck dozens of Houthi targets in Yemen last week, hoping to discourage additional attacks, but the Pentagon acknowledged afterward that the group will probably remain a threat.

The Houthis have said that their actions are in protest at Israel’s military campaign in Gaza. The Biden administration has not ruled out future military action in Yemen but has sought to tread carefully, fearful that an overreaction could engulf the Middle East in violence.

U.S. forces in the region reported separately Monday that an American-owned container ship was hit with a ballistic missile in the Houthis’ latest alleged provocation. The ship sustained no “significant damage” and its crew was uninjured, officials said in a statement. A missile launched from Yemen earlier in the day came down before it reached the coast.

Senior U.S. officials blame Tehran for having “aided and abetted” the crisis, which has principally affected commercial vessels transiting the Red Sea. The Houthis, officials contend, would be incapable of threatening these shipping routes without Iran’s technological and intelligence support.

The SEALs launched their mission from the USS Lewis B. Puller, which acts as a floating base, and headed toward the dhow in a smaller craft, according to a U.S. official. The dhow’s crew lacked official documentation, which allowed the U.S. boarding team to search the vessel, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive military mission.

Interdicting suspicious or adversarial vessels, known as visit, board, search and seizure, or VBSS, is among the most difficult and dangerous missions undertaken by highly trained troops. Such operations typically involve approaching the suspect vessel in smaller boats and using ladders and climbing tools to get aboard, which can be complicated by violent waves and hostile crew members. U.S. forces routinely partner with other nations’ militaries to blunt piracy and weapons smuggling in the region.

Though it has been days since the two SEALs went missing, the Pentagon remains hopeful that they will be found alive. The gulf’s waters are warm, officials have said, noting that powerful swells and exhaustion are more of a concern than hypothermia.

“We are conducting an exhaustive search for our missing teammates,” Gen. Michael Erik Kurilla, head of Central Command, said in the statement.

Source » washingtonpost