DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — The U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet based in the Middle East is beginning to offer rewards for information that can help sailors intercept weapons, drugs and other illicit shipments in the entire region amid tensions over Iran’s nuclear program and Tehran’s arming of Yemen. Houthi rebels.
While avoiding direct mention of Iran, the Fifth Fleet’s decision to offer cash and other assets for actionable intelligence in the Persian Gulf and other strategic waterways may increase pressure on the flow of weapons to the Houthis, as An unstable ceasefire still holds in Yemen.
The Houthis have already threatened a new Allied task force organized by the Fifth Fleet in the Red Seathough since then there has been no attack by Iranian-backed forces against the Navy.
Meanwhile, the Fifth Fleet says it and its partners seized $500 million worth of drugs in 2021 alone, more than the previous four years combined. The Fifth Fleet also intercepted 9,000 weapons in the same period, three times the number seized in 2020.
“Any destabilizing activity has our attention,” Cmdr. Timothy Hawkins, spokesman for the Fifth Fleet, to The Associated Press. “We have definitely seen in the last year a dizzying success in the seizure of illegal narcotics and illicit weapons. This represents another step in our effort to improve regional maritime security.”
The new 5th Fleet initiative launches Tuesday through the Department of Defense Rewards Program, in which troops offered cash and goods for tips on battlefields in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere after Al Qaeda launched the attacks on September 11, 2001. Since ground fighting has largely stopped throughout the region, the Fifth Fleet decided to try using the program while patrolling the waterways of the Middle East.
Hawkins said operators fluent in Arabic, English and Farsi would man a hotline, while the Navy would also receive additional tips online, in Dari and Pashto. Payments can reach $100,000 or the equivalent in vehicles, boats or food for tips that also include information about planned attacks on Americans, Hawkins said.
It is unclear whether the increase in Fifth Fleet seizures represents a return to shipping after the coronavirus pandemic or an overall increase in the number of illicit shipments in the region. Traffickers often use stateless dhows, traditional wooden sailing vessels common in the Middle East, to transport drugs and weapons.
One destination for the weapons appears to be Yemen. The Houthis seized Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, in September 2014 and forced the internationally recognized government into exile. A Saudi-led coalition armed with US weapons and intelligence entered the war on the side of Yemen’s exiled government in March 2015. Years of inconclusive fighting have brought the Arab world’s poorest nation to the brink of famine. A truce that began around the Muslim holy month of Ramadan still appears to be holding..
Despite an arms embargo imposed by the United Nations Security Council on Yemen, Iran has long been transferring rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, missiles and other weapons to the Houthis.. Although Iran denies arming the Houthis, independent experts, Western nations and UN experts have traced components to Iran.
Asked if further seizures could increase tensions with Iran, Hawkins listed the weapons and drugs the Navy hoped to intercept under the program.
“That’s what we’re looking for,” the commander said. “That is not in the interest of regional stability and security.”
Iran’s mission to the United Nations did not respond to a request for comment. The US Navy and Iran continue to have tense encounters in the Strait of Hormuzthe narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which a fifth of all traded oil passes.
The bounty program marks the latest initiative under Vice Admiral 5th Fleet. BradCooper, who also launched a drone task force last year amid tensions with Iran.
Cooper’s other effort, the Red Sea task force, has drawn criticism from the Houthis in the past. The rebel group, which has repeatedly denied being armed by Iran, did not respond to a request for comment on the new Navy program.
However, Ali al-Qahom, a Houthi official, tweeted last week that the rebels are monitoring increased US activity in the waters of the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf.
“That’s why the defense and confrontation options are open,” he said. “They and their diabolical projects have no place” in the region.
Associated Press journalist Ahmed Al-Haj in Sanaa, Yemen, contributed to this report.
Follow Jon Gambrell on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.
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