After US strikes in Yemen, Iran issues a warning about suspected spy ships in the Mideast

In this image provided the Ministry of Defence, an RAF Typhoon aircraft takes off to conduct further strikes against Houthi military targets in Yemen, from RAF Akrotiri, Cyprus, Saturday, Feb. 3, 2024. (AS1 Jake Green/Ministry of Defence via AP)
In this image provided the Ministry of Defence, an RAF Typhoon aircraft takes off to conduct further strikes against Houthi military targets in Yemen, from RAF Akrotiri, Cyprus, Saturday, Feb. 3, 2024. (AS1 Jake Green/Ministry of Defence via AP)

JERUSALEM (AP) -- Iran issued a warning Sunday to the U.S. over potentially targeting two cargo ships in the Mideast long suspected of serving as forwarding operating bases for Iranian commandos. The warning came just after the U.S. and the United Kingdom launched a massive airstrike campaign against Yemen's Houthi rebels.

The statement from Iran on the Behshad and Saviz ships appeared to signal Tehran's growing unease over U.S. strikes in recent days in Iraq, Syria and Yemen targeting militias backed by the Islamic Republic.

Those strikes were in retaliation for the killing of three U.S. soldiers and wounding of dozens of others in Jordan, attacks that stem back to Israel's war on Hamas in the Gaza Strip, which has escalated tensions across the wider Middle East and raised fears about a regional conflict breaking out.

The U.S. strikes overnight Sunday struck across six provinces of Yemen held by the Houthi rebels, including in Sanaa, the capital. The Houthis gave no assessment of the damage but the U.S. described hitting underground missile arsenals, launch sites and helicopters used by the rebels.

"These attacks will not discourage Yemeni forces and the nation from maintaining their support for Palestinians in the face of the Zionist occupation and crimes," Houthi military spokesman Brig. Gen. Yahya Saree said.

"The aggressors' airstrikes will not go unanswered."

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin warned the Houthis after the strikes that "they will continue to bear further consequences if they do not end their illegal attacks on international shipping and naval vessels." That message was echoed by British Foreign Secretary David Cameron, who said: "The Houthi attacks must stop."

Biden's national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, also warned the strikes may continue.

"We are prepared to deal with anything that any group or any country tries to come at us with," Sullivan told CBS' "Face the Nation."

"And the president has been clear that we will continue to respond to threats that American forces face as we go forward."

The Behshad and Saviz are registered as commercial cargo ships with a Tehran-based company the U.S. Treasury has sanctioned as a front for the state-run Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines. The Saviz, then later the Behshad, have loitered for years in the Red Sea off Yemen, suspected of serving as spy positions for Iran's paramilitary Revolutionary Guard.

In 2017, Saudi Arabia described the Saviz as a maritime base and weapons transfer point for the Guard, staffed by men in military fatigues. Footage aired by Saudi-owned television channels showed the vessel armed with what appeared to be a covered machine gun bolted to the ship's deck.

In the video statement Sunday by Iran's regular army, a narrator for the first time describes the vessels as "floating armories." The narrator describes the Behshad as aiding an Iranian mission to "counteract piracy in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden."

However, Iran is not publicly known to have taken part in any of the recent campaigns against rising Somali piracy in the region off the back of the Houthi attacks.

Just before the new campaign of U.S. airstrikes began, the Behshad traveled south into the Gulf of Aden. It's now docked in Djibouti in East Africa just off the coast from a Chinese military base in the country.

The statement ends with a warning overlaid with a montage of footage of U.S. warships and an American flag.

"Those engaging in terrorist activities against Behshad or similar vessels jeopardize international maritime routes, security and assume global responsibility for potential future international risks," the video said.

The U.S. Navy's Mideast-based 5th Fleet declined to comment over the threat.

The Saviz, which is now in the Indian Ocean near where the U.S. alleges Iranian drone attacks recently have targeted shipping, has come under attack before. In 2021, a likely mine explosion blew a hole through the hull of the Saviz, forcing Iran to bring the ship home. That attack, suspected to have been carried out by Israel, is part of a wider shadow war between Tehran and Israel after the collapse of the Iran nuclear deal.

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Baldor and Copp reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran, and Brian Melley in London contributed to this report.

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