The US Navy's 5th Fleet said Sunday (May 9) it had seized a huge cache of illicit Russian and Chinese weapons from a stateless dhow sailing in international waters of the north Arabian Sea.
A US defence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the ongoing investigation, told the Associated Press that the Navy's initial investigation found the vessel came from Iran.
The official said the weapons resembled those of other interdicted shipments bound for the Iran-backed Houthis (Ansarallah) in Yemen.
The 5th Fleet, which is based in Bahrain, said the guided-missile cruiser USS Monterey intercepted the vessel and discovered the cargo as it conducted a two-day operation on May 6 and 7.
The routine flag verification boarding was conducted in international water in accordance with customary international law, it said.
"The cache of weapons included dozens of advanced Russian-made anti-tank guided missiles, thousands of Chinese Type 56 assault rifles, and hundreds of PKM machine guns, sniper rifles and rocket-propelled grenades launchers," it said in a statement.
Other weapon components included advanced optical sights.
Based on interviews with the crew and material investigated on board, the sailors determined the vessel came from Iran, the defence official said.
The arms are in US custody and their source and intended destination is under investigation, it said.
The 5th Fleet said the Monterey was in operation for 36 hours, providing security for boarding teams.
"After all illicit cargo was removed, the dhow was assessed for seaworthiness, and after questioning, its crew was provided food and water before being released," the statement said.
The statement did not indicate where the vessel may have come from, but said the US Navy's regular patrols in the region "disrupt the transport of illicit cargo that often funds terrorism and unlawful activity".
Past seizures linked to Iran
The seizure, one of several since 2013, comes as the United States and others try to end the yearslong conflict between the Houthis and the legitimate government in Yemen, which is witnessing one of the world's worst humanitarian disasters.
In February, the US Navy seized two illicit shipments of weapons and weapons components from two dhows during a maritime security operation in international waters off the coast of Somalia.
While the original source of the weapons has not been identified, Iran has routed previous shipments of arms to the Houthis via Somalia.
In a January 25 report to the UN Security Council, a panel of experts on Yemen documented an "increasing body of evidence" that suggests individuals or entities in Iran "supply significant volumes of weapons and components to the Houthis".
Last June, the Saudi navy seized two large shipments of small arms and light weapons. One shipment was aboard the Yemeni sailboat al-Shamasy, seized 90 nautical miles away from the Nishtun port in al-Mahrah.
The other, seized 70 nautical miles northeast of Souso, Somalia, was on a larger sailboat with a Somalian crew. According to the report, the boat had traveled between ports in Somalia, Yemen and Iran.
In a separate incident, the Yemeni Coast Guard last May seized a boat carrying four individuals, who later admitted to being part of a smuggling network transporting weapons to the Houthis.