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Yemen's Houthi rebels seize Saudi vessel in Red Sea

Houthi spokesman says the group seized three ships, including one belonging to Riyadh, at south end of Red Sea
This file photo shows two ships off the Yemeni port of Salif in May 2019 (AFP/File photo)

Yemen's Houthis have captured a Saudi vessel in the south end of the Red Sea, the rebel group and a spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen said, escalating tensions between the two parties.

A "tugboat" towing a South Korean drilling rig was captured by Houthi fighters on Sunday, Saudi-led coalition spokesman Turki al-Maliki said in a statement on Monday.

"The tugboat was tugging a [dredge barge] owned by a South Korean company," said Maliki.

While the statement did not say whether the boat belongs to Riyadh, vessel trafficking website Marine Traffic says the Rabigh-3 vessel began its journey from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia and sails with a Saudi flag.

The Houthis confirmed on Monday that the group had captured three ships, including one belonging to Saudi Arabia.

The rebels said the vessels were taken to the Yemeni port of Salif, the group's Al-Masirah TV reported.

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Yemen's foreign minister, Mohammed Abdullah al-Hadrami, said on Monday that he condemned the ship's capture and called for its release in a meeting with South Korea's ambassador to Yemen.

The incident "poses a serious threat to international shipping freedom south of the Red Sea", Hadrami said in a statement.

The incident comes amid continued efforts to broker peace talks between the Houthis and the Yemeni government, which is backed by Saudi Arabia, to put an end to the ongoing war in Yemen.

The Saudi government launched a military offensive in the country in 2015 to root out the Houthis after they overran the capital Sanaa and ousted Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi.

The ongoing conflict has killed tens of thousands of people and led to what the United Nations calls the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

UN-brokered peace talks in December 2018 yielded a series of breakthroughs, including a ceasefire in Hodeidah, but the war has continued.