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Two US Navy SEALs presumed dead after anti-Houthi raid: Pentagon

The two special operators are presumed dead after attempting to board a stateless boat off Somalia earlier this month.
David C. Mercil/US Navy/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Two US Navy SEALs are presumed to have died after being swept away in the waves during an operation to board and search an unmarked boat suspected of smuggling Iranian missile components earlier this month off the coast of Somalia, the US military said Sunday.

“We regret to announce that after a 10-day exhaustive search, our two missing US Navy SEALs have not been located and their status has been changed to deceased,” US Central Command announced.

The elite special operators were boarding the stateless fishing vessel, known as a dhow, in the Gulf of Aden on Jan. 11 when swells swept away one member of their team. Another SEAL plunged into the water to rescue his teammate, officials previously said.

The SEALs had deployed via small boats from the USS Lewis B. Puller to board and search the dhow in what is known in the US Navy as a “visit, board, search and seizure” operation.

The loss of the SEALs at sea touched off more than a week of search and rescue efforts, which shifted to recovery on Sunday.

“During this expansive search operation, airborne and naval platforms from the US, Japan, and Spain continuously searched more than 21,000 square miles to locate our missing teammates,” CENTCOM said.

The dhow was later proven to have been carrying Iranian ballistic and cruise missile components thought to be destined for Yemen’s Houthi rebels as they continue to launch precision-guided Iranian projectiles toward commercial shipping vessels off the Yemeni coast.

US Navy personnel detained the crew before scuttling the dhow, deeming it “unsafe.”

Iran’s shipment of weapons to Yemen’s Houthi rebels violates the United Nations' 2015 arms embargo on Yemen and subsequent updates to UN Security Council Resolution 2216.

A day prior to the ill-fated raid, the UN Security Council passed a resolution demanding the Houthis immediately halt their attacks on commercial shipping and underscoring the right of member states to defend such vessels.

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps uses a variety of sea and land routes to smuggle weapons to the Houthis, who have taken over much of Yemen’s major population centers since overthrowing the central government in Sanaa in 2015.

On Monday, the US Navy’s outgoing top commander in the Middle East, Vice Adm. Brad Cooper, accused Iran of being “very directly involved” in the Houthis’ attacks on merchant ships in the Red Sea that began in November in what the Yemeni faction has described as retaliation for Israel’s war in the Gaza Strip. Yet Cooper stopped short of accusing Iran of directing specific attacks, the Associated Press reported.

The United States has launched seven rounds of pre-emptive strikes to destroy Houthi missile stockpiles and ready-to-launch projectiles on the ground in recent weeks.

The deployment of SEALs to carry out the Jan. 11 operation – rather than regular US Navy teams or US Marines – suggests military planners suspected the operators may encounter armed resistance as they boarded, potentially due to the nature of the highly sensitive cargo onboard, two former senior US Navy officials told Al-Monitor.

The former officials said the Houthis’ Iranian suppliers often disperse high-value weaponry, such as missile warheads and guidance systems, among multiple dhows via ship-to-ship transfers en route to Yemen to avoid detection by the US Navy and its allies.