WASHINGTON: Four individuals carrying Pakistani identity papers faced charges in a US federal court on Tuesday for allegedly transporting weapons from Iran to Yemen in support of Houthis.

The US Justice Department said 10 other individuals were also detained as material witnesses, but their identities were not revealed. They have also been charged in a US court in the Eastern District of Virginia.

On the night of Jan 11, US Central Command Navy forces, including Navy SEALs, along with members of the US Coast Guard Maritime Safety and Security Team, boarded an unnamed vessel in the Arabian Sea, off the coast of Somalia.

While searching the vessel, US forces found and seized Iranian-made adva­nced conventional weaponry, includ­ing critical parts for medium-range ballistic missiles and anti-ship cruise missiles, a warhead, and propulsion and guidance components, an FBI agent wrote in an affidavit.

Embassy official says they are ‘aware of the situation’ and in touch with US authorities

The type of weaponry found aboard the dhow is allegedly consistent with the weaponry used by the Houthi forces in recent attacks on US military ships and merchant ships in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, the Justice Department said.

The US Navy brought the 14 mariners aboard the USS Lewis B. Puller after determining the dhow was unsafe and unseaworthy. The defendants and their co-defendants were transferred from the USS Lewis B. Puller to the Eastern District of Virginia.

The four defendants and eight of the 10 material witnesses made their initial appearances before a US Magistrate Judge in Richmond.

On Feb 11, the US obtained arrest warrants for four of the mariners who were aboard the vessel — defendants Mohammad Pahlawan, Mohammad Mazhar, Ghufranullah and Izhar Mohammad. Pakistani identification cards allegedly were found on the dhow for each of the four defendants.

When Dawn contacted a Pakistan embassy official in Washington, he said, “We are aware of the situation and in touch with US authorities.”

In such cases, the embassy first tries to confirm the identity of individuals as Pakistanis and then seeks consular access to them.

Defendant Pahlawan is charged with intentionally and unlawfully transporting on board the dhow a warhead, knowing the warhead would be used by the Houthi forces against commercial and naval vessels in the Red Sea and surrounding waters. He is also charged with providing materially false information to US Coast Guard officers during the boarding of the dhow regarding the vessel’s crew and cargo.

“As charged, Mr Pahlawan attempted to smuggle advanced missile components, including a warhead,” to Houthi forces for use against cargo ships and US vessels sailing across the Horn of Africa, said Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen.

His co-defendants Mohammad Mazhar, Ghufranullah and Izhar Muhammad were also charged with providing materially false information to US Coast Guard officers during the boarding of the dhow regarding the vessel’s crew and cargo.

“The Justice Department will use every legal authority to hold accountable those who facilitate the flow of weapons from Iran to Houthi rebel forces, Hamas, and other groups that endanger the security of the United States and our allies,” said US Attorney General Merrick B. Garland while commenting on the case.

“The flow of missiles and other advanced weaponry from Iran to Houthi rebel forces in Yemen threatens the people and interests of America and our partners in the region,” said Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco.

The arrests shed light on the US effort to curb alleged weapon supplies from Iran to Houthis. The claim that Pakistani nationals were involved in the smuggling raises questions about regional dynamics and potential increase in broader geopolitical tensions.

The detailed weaponry seized underscores US concerns about the Houthis’ capabilities and their impact on security in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.

The statements from US Attorney General Garland and Deputy Attorney General Monaco emphasise the US concern about the flow of advanced weaponry to groups in the region.

Also, the Pentagon identified two drowned persons US Navy Special Warfare Operator 1st Class Christopher J. Chambers and Navy Special Warfare Operator 2nd Class Nathan Gage Ingram, who jumped in to try to save the former but he drowned too.

Published in Dawn, February 28th, 2024

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