Yemen: questions over 'civilian' ship attacked in Red Sea

More details are emerging about the attack on a highly unusual "civilian" vessel which was severely damaged by Houthi fighters at the southern end of the Red Sea last weekend (see yesterday's blog post).

The Saudi-led coalition which is fighting the Houthis in Yemen insists that the vessel, painted in battleship grey, was on a humanitarian mission and that the attack was a terrorist act. The vessel was unarmed and had a multinational civilian crew but, confusingly, was on lease to the military of the UAE which is fighting alongside the Saudis in the anti-Houthi coalition.

The incident raises questions about the exact nature of the vessel's mission and whether – at the very least – the Emiratis ought to be making a clearer distinction between humanitarian and military activity.

The vessel, known as HSV-2 Swift and designated as "Expeditionary Fast Transport", was built experimentally as part of a US-led military programme to develop "a high-speed, shallow draft vessel intended for rapid intra-theater transport of medium-sized cargo payloads". A YouTube video shows its various capabilities.

Until 2013 the Swift was leased to the US Navy for evaluation purposes and used both as a support vessel and for humanitarian missions. In 2003, according to the US Navy, it "proved its military mettle during Operation Iraqi Freedom as a forward staging platform for Marine Fleet Anti-Terrorism and SEAL (SEa, Air, Land) teams in the shallow waters of Umm Qasr, Iraq."

The Swift before the attack

In 2015, following a refit, the Swift arrived in the UAE where it is currently on lease to the military.

According to the Emirati government news agency, at the time of the attack the Swift was on a routine trip to and from the Yemeni port of Aden (which is not under Houthi control) and "was carrying assistance, wounded Yemenis and passengers". Most reports don't make clear whether it was coming or going, though Arab News (Saudi-owned) quoted the UAE military as saying it was "returning" from Aden. The mention of wounded Yemenis on board also suggests it was attacked on the return journey. 

Aden, as can be seen from the map below, is more than 150 km east of the southern entrance to the Red Sea. Both sides in the Yemen conflict agree that the Swift was attacked in the Red Sea, near to the Yemeni port of Mokha/Mocha, which is under Houthi control.

So where was it heading? The obvious answer is Assab in Eritrea, on the opposite side of the Red Sea to Mokha, which the UAE is using as a logistics hub in the Yemen war. Shipping data cited by IHS Janes Defence Weekly shows the Swift has made "numerous voyages" from Assab to Aden and Mukalla (another southern Yemeni port) during the last year or so.

Click here for larger map

Satellite images published by IHS Janes last April showed that the UAE had established a military camp close to Assab airport and was in the process of constructing a new port facility nearby. Further detective work by IHS Janes indicated that the UAE's National Marine Dredging Company was involved in the construction work. By an odd coincidence, the Emirati dredging company is the current owner of the Swift, which it is leasing to the UAE military.

IHS Janes commented:

"Eritrea has little need of a new port in the Assab area, given that the existing one 12 km to the southeast of the construction site was rarely visited until the UAE's navy began to use it last year to support the country's military operation in Yemen."

Satellite imagery showed that "most of the naval vessels at the existing port since 21 September 2015 have been Emirati landing ships", it said, adding:

"IHS Maritime & Trade data show that many of the commercial vessels that docked there over the same period came from the UAE's naval base at Fujairah. This indicated that the UAE is using Assab as a logistics hub where supplies are transferred from commercial to naval vessels for onward shipment to Yemen.

"But satellite imagery from 4 March shows one of the UAE navy's Baynunah-class corvettes docked at Assab, suggesting it is also supporting warships involved in enforcing the blockade on Yemen."

Satellite images published by IHS Janes showing (left) the Assab site in 2013 and (right) in 2016

Describing the Swift's recent activities, the UAE foreign ministry said:

"In more than a year of operating routine journeys to Aden, the civilian ship has carried thousands of tonnes of humanitarian assistance and more than 1,000 wounded people, along with their companions, in addition to large equipment for the electricity, water and healthcare sectors which had significantly eased the suffering of the residents of Aden through the restoration of the infrastructure in these vital sectors."

Whether the Swift's activities were purely humanitarian remains unclear. If that's what they were, the UAE would have been well-advised to do more to keep them separate from the war effort.


Below: the Swift after the attack. Photos via WAM news agency.