Iranian news agencies said the cargo vessel, flying the Red Crescent Society of Iran flag, was under escort by Iranian naval warships

Share story

An Iranian cargo ship was headed toward Yemen on Tuesday, setting up a potential confrontation with Saudi Arabia as a halt in the Saudi-led bombing campaign against Yemen’s Houthi rebels was about to take effect.

Iranian news agencies said the cargo vessel, flying the Red Crescent Society of Iran flag, was under escort by Iranian naval warships from the southern city of Bandar Abbas carrying emergency relief supplies to the Yemeni port of Hodeida. That city, the fourth largest in Yemen, is controlled by the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, who are targets of the Saudi bombings.

In what appeared to be a thinly disguised warning to the Saudis and their Arab allies in the Persian Gulf against interdicting and boarding the vessel, the head of the Red Crescent Society of Iran, Amir Mohsen Ziya’ee, said that “based on international regulations, no one can inspect a vessel that is moving in international waters carrying the flag of a country,” according to Iran’s official Press TV.

More than 1,400 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in Yemen since a Saudi-led military coalition began bombing in March to thwart territorial advances by the Houthi insurgents, regarded by Saudi Arabia as proxies for Iran, its regional rival.

The Houthis agreed on Sunday to a five-day cease-fire proposed by Saudi Arabia that was set to start at 11 p.m. Tuesday local time — 4 p.m. Eastern time — in order to allow deliveries of emergency relief supplies.

It was unclear, however, how the Saudis were intending to allow aid arrivals, and still enforce a naval blockade they have imposed on Yemen, without inspecting incoming ships.

The Saudis intensified their bombing on Monday and early Tuesday in advance of the cease-fire, striking a number of targets in the capital, Sanaa, including what appeared to be an ammunition depot, causing an enormous explosion. Ordnance hurled from the depot by the blast sent shrapnel crashing into homes, witnesses said. Local health officials and the Interior Ministry said at least 57 people were killed.

Since the Saudi bombing began, Yemen, the Middle East’s most impoverished country, has been plunged into one of its worst humanitarian crises. The combination of military strikes and a naval blockade has caused acute shortages of food, medicine and fuel.

The United Nations refugee agency said Tuesday that one of its ships had managed to reach Hodeida last Friday, despite the blockade, and was preparing to “significantly step up its assistance” once the cease-fire took effect.

“There is clear and urgent need for aid to reach many more people,” a spokesman for the agency, Adrian Edwards, told reporters at its Geneva headquarters. “Hundreds of thousands of people across Yemen are struggling to meet their basic needs and are in desperate need of help.”