RIYADH -- Yemen's seven-year war lurched into its latest crisis Monday (January 3) when Iran-backed Houthis seized an Emirati-flagged vessel in the Red Sea off the coast of Yemen.
The Saudi-led Arab coalition, of which the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a key member, said the cargo ship, named "Rwabee", was returning from a mission to set up a field hospital on Yemen's Socotra island.
Rwabee was carrying medical supplies, it said, branding the hijacking Sunday as an act of piracy that threatens the freedom of navigation and international trade in the south Red Sea and Bab al-Mandeb strait.
"The militia must promptly release the ship, or the coalition forces will undertake all necessary measures and procedures to handle this violation, including the use of force if necessary," coalition spokesman Turki al-Maliki said.
But the Houthis, who said the multinational crew was still on board, warned there would be consequences if the ship was targeted.
The incident follows intensified fighting in recent weeks between the Yemeni government and its allies, on one side, and the Houthis, who have ramped up missile and drone assaults on neighbouring Saudi Arabia, on the other.
The Arab coalition intervened in support of Yemen's government after the Houthis staged a coup in Sanaa in September 2014.
A US official based in the region said it appeared to be the first ship hijacking by the Houthis since they seized three vessels -- a Saudi-flagged tug and two South Korean vessels -- off Uqban island in 2019.
In July 2018, Saudi Arabia accused the Houthis of attacking two Saudi-operated oil tankers in the Red Sea.
"The seizure was unusual," the US official said of the Sunday hijacking. "It looks to be the first known case of the Houthis seizing a Saudi-led coalition vessel in more than two years."
Al-Maliki said the Rwabee was returning to the Saudi city of Jizan carrying medical supplies when it was seized late Sunday off al-Hodeidah province, the Saudi Press Agency reported.
Yemeni political researcher Fares al-Beel described the hijacking as a "crime", telling Asharq al-Awsat the Houthis have become "a threat to international navigation and global trade and regional and international security".
He noted that the Houthis would not have dared carry out such hostile attacks without complete support and co-ordination from Iran.
Egypt, Jordan and Kuwait were quick to condemn the hijacking, with the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC), Arab Parliament and Organisation of Islamic Co-operation also denouncing the incident.
The Houthis have been engaged in a ferocious assault on Marib, the government's last northern stronghold, where on Tuesday fresh clashes killed around 200 fighters.
In November, they took control of a large area south of al-Hodeidah port.
On December 25, the Arab coalition launched a "large-scale" assault on Yemen after missiles fired by the Houthis killed two people in the kingdom, the first such deaths in three years.
The United Nations and United States have been stressing the urgency of peace talks in order to put an end to the Yemen conflict, the death toll from which reached an estimated 377,000 at the end of 2021.