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Yemen’s Houthis release captured South Korean, Saudi vessels

Ships seized by Houthis rebels on Sunday were South Korean and Saudi-flagged in the latest Red Sea incident.

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Yemen’s Houthi rebels released three vessels and 16 people they had seized, South Korea’s foreign ministry and a Houthi military source said on Wednesday.

The seizure on Sunday was the latest incident at sea around Yemen, where Saudi Arabia is leading a Western-backed coalition of Arab states against the Houthis, who control the capital and most population centres.

Of the vessels freed on Tuesday, two were South Korean and one was Saudi Arabia-flagged, the South Korean foreign ministry said in a statement, adding the families of two South Koreans among the crew had been notified.

“The three ships were released after the necessary legal measures,” the Houthi military source in Yemen told Reuters news agency, adding all crew were also freed.

On Twitter, Hussein al-Azzi, the Houthi deputy foreign minister, said the release resulted from friendly ties between Seoul and Sanaa, the Yemeni capital the Houthis overran in 2014.

Key trade route

A Houthi investigation found the ships entered Yemeni waters because of bad weather, al-Azzi added. Earlier, the Houthi coastguard said the vessels entered Yemeni waters without permission.

The Houthis said they would release the captured vessels if they proved to be South Korean, after it seized a rig being towed by a Saudi-flagged tugboat in the southern part of the Red Sea.

The Saudi-led coalition said the seized vessels included a Korean drilling rig and the Saudi tug, which were captured by Houthi fighters who attacked from two boats.

The incident came amid a lull in Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia. Officials from both sides have said the two parties have been holding indirect talks to end the war.

The Saudis view the Houthis as a risk to one of the world’s most important maritime trade routes, while the Houthis say the coalition has imposed a blockade that threatens Yemenis with starvation.

The Saudi-led alliance intervened in Yemen in March 2015 against the Houthis after they overthrew the government in Sanaa.

Houthi forces have been driven away from most of Yemen’s coast during the conflict, but still hold Hodeidah, the country’s biggest Red Sea port and the base of the group’s navy.

The United Nations says the Houthis attacked two oil tankers last year in the Bab al-Mandeb Strait at the southern mouth of the Red Sea, as well as a vessel carrying wheat to Yemen.

Since 2015, tens of thousands of people – mostly civilians – have been killed in the conflict that has triggered what the UN has described as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.