Officials say the seizure happened in January, with the weapons set for Yemen’s Houthi rebels.
French naval forces in January seized thousands of assault rifles, machineguns and anti-tank missiles headed from Iran to Yemen, officials have told the Wall Street Journal and The Associated Press news agency, the latest such incident amid the country’s long-running war.
While Iran did not immediately acknowledge the seizure, images of the weapons allegedly meant for Houthi rebels released by the United States military’s Central Command showed them to be similar to others captured by American forces in other shipments tied back to Tehran.
The US did not specify in its statement on Wednesday which forces had led the operation, merely saying it had “supported” a “seizure by partner naval forces”.
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The announcement comes as Iran faces increasing Western pressure over its shipment of drones to arm Russia during its war on Ukraine, as well as for its violent months-long crackdown targeting protesters.
Regional tensions have also increased after a suspected Israeli drone attack on a military workshop in the central Iranian city of Isfahan.
The seizure occurred on January 15 in the Gulf of Oman, a body of water that stretches from the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Gulf, through to the Arabian Sea and onto the Indian Ocean.
US Central Command described the interdiction as happening “along routes historically used to traffic weapons unlawfully from Iran to Yemen”.
A United Nations resolution bans arms transfers to Yemen’s Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, who took the country’s capital in 2014 and have been at war with a Saudi-led coalition backing the country’s internationally recognised government since March 2015.
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The Wall Street Journal first reported on the seizure, identifying the forces involved as elite French special forces. A regional official with knowledge of the interdiction, who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity due to not having permission to speak publicly on the operation’s details, similarly identified the French as carrying out the operation.
The French military did not respond to requests for comment about capturing the weapons.
US Central Command did not immediately respond to questions about the seizure, nor did Iran’s mission to the UN.
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While France maintains a naval base in Abu Dhabi, it typically takes a quieter approach in the region while maintaining a diplomatic presence in Iran.
Iran has long denied arming the Houthis, though Western nations, UN experts and others have traced weaponry ranging from night-vision scopes, rifles and missiles back to Tehran.
In November, the US Navy said it found 70 tonnes of a missile fuel component hidden among bags of fertiliser on board a ship bound for Yemen from Iran. Houthi ballistic missile fire has targeted Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in the past.
Images taken on Wednesday by US Central Command, analysed by the AP, showed a variety of weapons on board an unidentified ship apparently docked at a port. The weapons appeared to include Chinese-made Type 56 rifles, Russian-made Molot AKS20Us and PKM-pattern machineguns. All have appeared in other seizures of weapons attributed to Iran.
Central Command said the seizure included more than 3,000 rifles and 578,000 rounds of ammunition. The released images also showed 23 container-launched anti-tank missiles, which have also turned up in other shipments tied to Iran.
The war in Yemen has deteriorated largely into a deadlock and spawned one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. However, Saudi-led air attacks have not been recorded in Yemen since the kingdom began a ceasefire at the end of March 2022, according to the Yemen Data Project.
That ceasefire expired in October despite diplomatic efforts to renew it. That has led to fears the war could again escalate. More than 150,000 people have been killed in Yemen during the fighting, including at least 14,500 civilians.