Yemen’s Houthi rebels hijack towboat with apparent Saudi link

Yemen’s Houthi rebels have hijacked a boat towing a South Korean drilling rig, a Riyadh-led coalition has said, with a global shipping tracker calling it a Saudi-flagged vessel.

Sunday’s incident in the Red Sea follows a lull in Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia as one Riyadh official said the kingdom had established an “open channel” with the Iran-backed rebels.

“On Sunday, during the sailing of the tugboat Rabigh-3 in the southern Red Sea, it was hijacked and subjected to armed robbery by terrorist elements affiliated to the Houthi militia,” the coalition spokesman Turki al-Maliki said.

“The boat was towing a [marine rig] owned by a South Korean company,” Maliki said in a statement posted on the official Saudi press agency.

The statement did not say which country the vessel belonged to or how many crew members were onboard. Maliki did not immediately respond to AFP’s request for comment.

Yemen’s prime minister, Maeen Abdulmalik Saeed, tweeted that a “Korean ship and two accompanying boats” had been seized by the rebels, condemning the move as a “dangerous escalation”.

According to the tracking website Marine Traffic, Rabigh-3’s home port is in the western Saudi city of Jeddah and it sails under the kingdom’s flag.

The head of the rebels’ supreme revolutionary committee, Mohammed al-Houthi, acknowledged the Houthis had seized a vessel, in what he called a “suspicious case” off the Yemeni coast.

“The Yemeni coastguard is doing its job to determine whether it … belongs to the aggressors or to South Korea,” he tweeted.

“If it is for South Korea, they will be released after legal procedures … we assure everyone not to worry about the crew.”

News of the hijacking came as Saeed returned to the southern city of Aden on Monday for the first time since being forced out by southern separatists in August.

Aden has become the seat of government after the leaders were driven out of Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, in 2014 by the Houthi rebels.

Saeed’s return follows a Saudi-brokered deal with the separatists this month, which observers said could pave the way for a wider peace deal in Yemen.

The Houthi rebels have been fighting Yemen’s internationally recognised government and its allies for more than four years in a war that has pushed the country to the brink of famine.

A year after the Iran-backed Houthis seized Sana’a, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and their allies intervened in the conflict in support of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

Since 2015, tens of thousands of people – most of them civilians – have been killed in a conflict that has triggered what the UN has described as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

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