The U.S. Navy has seven combat ships in the waters around Yemen as the Saudi-led bombing campaign there continues, but U.S. troops are not participating in a Saudi naval blockade in the region, U.S. military officials said Friday.
The American ships include: the destroyers USS Forrest Sherman and USS Winston Churchill; the minesweepers USS Sentry and USS Dextrous; and three amphibious ships carrying about 2,200 Marines, the USS Iwo Jima, the USS New York and the USS Fort McHenry, a Navy official told The Washington Post. The USNS Charles Drew, a dry cargo ship, is also in the region.
The Navy regularly patrols the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea around Yemen, but the ships there now are deployed at a sensitive time with the Saudi Navy blocking deliveries to Yemen’s ports. The Saudis began the operation last month in an apparent attempt to stop Houthi rebels in Yemen from re-arming.
Iran, which has been accused of arming the rebels, responded by sending navy vessels of its own into the region this week. The ships are said to be positioned in the Bab al-Mandab strait, the narrow stretch of water between Yemen and Djibouti that connects the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.
The Wall Street Journal reported this week that the United States had expanded its role at sea around Yemen, searching vessels for Iranian arms bound for the rebels. But Air Force Col. Patrick Ryder, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, downplayed the effort on Friday, saying the United States is not a part of the Saudi-led blockade and is simply patrolling waters in the region the way it usually does.
Lt. Timothy Hawkins, a Navy spokesman at the Pentagon, said the service has not boarded a ship in the region since April 1, when troops from the USS Sterett, a destroyer, boarded the Panamanian-flagged ship Saisaban. It was suspected to be carrying weapons from Iran to Yemen, but nothing was found.
As Saudi forces pounded southern Yemen with a fresh series of airstrikes Wednesdays, Houthi rebels called for peace talks.
The U.N.-sponsored talks should resume “but only after a complete halt of attacks,” Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdulsalam said in a Facebook post.
The previous round of talks between Houthi rebels and the government of Yemeni President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi failed in January after rebels attacked the president’s personal residence and presidential palace in Sanaa, the Yemeni capital.
On Tuesday, Saudi Arabia announced the end of its Operation Decisive Storm, a nearly monthlong air campaign against Houthi positions.. The Saudi-led coalition said a new initiative was underway, Operation Renewal of Hope, focused on the political process.
But less than 24 hours later, after rebel forces attacked a Yemeni government military brigade, the airstrikes resumed, according to security sources in Taiz.
It was unclear whether it was a resumption of the operation or a short-term series of strikes.
Meanwhile, Houthis released Yemeni Defense Minister Mahmoud al-Subaihi in Sanaa on Wednesday, according to a senior Saudi source speaking on condition of anonymity.
The Houthis had said they detained the defense minister at an air base near the Yemeni port city of Aden on March 26, shortly before the Saudis began their airstrike campaign. The rebels captured the base that day as part of an advance on the Aden area.
The United Nations demanded al-Subaihi’s release earlier this month.
Saudis claim victory
Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners launched airstrikes on Houthi positions across Yemen starting on March 26, hoping to wipe out the Iranian-allied rebel group that overthrew the government and seized power.
The Saudis say they want to restore the Yemeni government — a key U.S. ally in the fight against al Qaeda — which was kicked out of the capital by the rebels earlier this year.
This month, Saudi officials said airstrikes have degraded Houthi-controlled military infrastructure, including key buildings in Sanaa.
The campaign achieved its objectives “by a very good planning, very precise execution, by the courage of our pilots, our sailors, our soldiers,” said Brig. Gen. Ahmed Asiri, a Saudi military spokesman.
A senior Saudi official told CNN that the Houthis agreed to “nearly all demands” of the U.N. Security Council. Former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his family will leave Yemen and never return for a position in politics, the source said.