DJIBOUTI // As of Thursday night an Iranian ship said to be carrying aid destined for Yemen was still positioned off the shores of Djibouti, where its cargo was to be inspected by United Nations officials.
By nightfall, the ship had stopped about five kilometres north of Djibouti’s port, according to the ship tracking website marinetraffic.com.
The Iran Shahed had abruptly turned towards Djibouti at 9.00am UAE on Thursday just before reaching the narrow Bab Al Mandeb Strait that connects the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden.
The website did not show any other vessels near the ship which was being accompanied by two Iranian warships. The ship only appeared on the website on Wednesday night, after not showing up since its position was registered off the coast of Oman one week ago.
The Iran Shahed had originally set sail for the Houthi-controlled port of Hodeidah. Iran said the ship was carrying 2,400 tonnes of food and 100 tonnes of medicine.
The change of course follows pressure on Iran from the United States and Saudi Arabia, which is leading an air campaign against Yemen’s Houthi rebels and controls the waters around Yemen, enforcing inspections on vessels headed there.
Iran had initially rejected the notion of Saudi Arabia inspecting the ship and resisted US calls to reroute the vessel to Djibouti for its cargo to be inspected.
On Thursday, Iran’s semi-official Fars News Agency said that three foreign warships had approached the vessel. The agency’s report said the intentions of the warships were not clear yet.
On Wednesday, the Iranian news organisation Tasnim said the ship would “probably” dock at Djibouti and be inspected by the International Committee of the Red Cross. Other Iranian news outlets, however, reported inspections would be carried out by the UN.
Olivier Chassot, head of Yemen Support at the ICRC in Djibouti told The National on Thursday that the Red Cross would not be inspecting the ship when it arrived in port.
The ship had been chartered by the Iranian Red Crescent Society. Mr Chassot said that ICRC had requested that Red Cross and Red Crescent chapters across the world coordinate their Yemen relief activities with the ICRC rather than act unilaterally.
He also said any Red Cross or Red Crescent aid destined for Yemen should pass through Oman, not Djibouti. He did not offer further details.
The Iran Shahed is said to have been sent on its journey to Yemen by the Iranian Red Crescent Society.
United Nations representatives in Djibouti did not immediately return requests for comment on the inspection of the ship.
The standoff over the ship raised concerns of a military showdown in the Red Sea.
The Pentagon warned earlier this week that two Iranian warships were escorting the Iran Shahed and the leader of Iran’s armed forces said last week that any attack on the ship would prompt a regional war.
Saudi Arabia has sought to oversee what aid goes into Yemen and where it goes. It has previously blocked Iranian aid flights by threatening them with fighter jets and bombing Sanaa’s airport.
A five-day ceasefire called by Riyadh last week allowed the UN and aid groups to bring much-needed aid and fuel to civilians affected by the fighting between the Iran-backed Houthis and forces loyal to Yemeni president Abdrabu Mansur Hadi, who was forced to flee the country.
The Saudi Arabia-led coalition resumed its air strikes after the ceasefire expired on Sunday night, and accused the Houthi rebels of repeated violations of the truce.
Iran said it will continue to send aid to Yemen. On Thursday, Fars reported that Iran had loaded aid onto a plane that was preparing to fly to Yemen. The report also said that a second Iranian aid ship, the Arezou, would begin loading aid in southern Iran on Friday.
Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Thursday voiced support for UN-sponsored peace talks expected to be held on May 28 in Geneva.
But Mr Zarif said that the talks should be attended only by Yemen’s political groups and that no representatives from “any other country should be present at the dialogue”.
He said that other countries “could have a role to assist in this process”, but did not elaborate.
Also on Thursday, Saudi Arabia and Houthi forces exchanged heavy artillery and rocket fire. Air strikes carried out by the Saudi Arabia-led coalition were also reported across the country.
According to the UN, at least 1,800 people have been killed in Yemen’s conflict since late March.
* with additional reporting by Agence France-Presse, Reuters