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Iran warships escort cargo vessel toward Yemen

WASHINGTON — U.S. and allied officials are debating how they should handle an Iranian cargo ship that is flanked by two warships and heading toward a Yemen port, reportedly carrying humanitarian supplies for the war-wracked nation.

The mission sets up a dilemma: Should the U.S. and its allies block the ship, igniting a likely confrontation with Iran, or should they let it through to the Yemeni port, opening the door for future deliveries that might contain weapons or other lethal aid?

U.S. officials say they haven't decided whether the U.S. or other navies in the area — including Saudi Arabia and Egypt — will block or try to inspect the cargo ship before it gets to Yemen. The officials said their intelligence shows no evidence the Iranian ship is carrying any lethal or military aid.

At least five U.S. warships are in the western Gulf of Aden or off the coast of Djibouti and are positioned to respond if needed, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

U.S. and other Western leaders have accused Iran of militarily backing the Yemeni rebels, known as Houthis, and providing them with weapons. The supply ship is moving closer to the Yemen port of Hodeida just as a five-day truce expires between the rebels and the Saudi-led coalition that is backing internationally-recognized President Abed-Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who is now in exile.

The U.S. has been supporting the Saudi-led coalition, and has urged Iran to send the cargo ship to Djibouti, where the United Nations is coordinating humanitarian aid for Yemen.

Iran had warned last week that it would protect the supply ship. U.S. Army Col. Steve Warren said Tuesday that two Iranian warships linked up with the cargo vessel overnight Monday.

As the cargo ship moves closer to Hodeida, the U.S. and other allies have a number of options. An immediate goal is to have U.N. officials pressure Tehran to reroute the ship to Djibouti. If that doesn't work, Saudi Arabia, Egypt or other allies could interdict the ship and inspect the cargo to ensure there are no weapons aboard.

Less desirable options, officials said, would include letting the Iranian ship dock in Yemen and then urging the Iranians to allow an inspection there. Or, if allies are not convinced that the ship is only carrying humanitarian aid, allies could destroy the cargo once it's unloaded.

The debate comes as the Saudi-led coalition on Tuesday carried out the heaviest airstrikes on the Yemeni capital since the five-day truce expired earlier this week, hitting weapons depots in the mountains surrounding Sanaa and sending dozens of families fleeing their homes in panic.

The Yemeni conflict has killed 1,820 people and wounded 7,330 since March 19, according to U.N. estimates. The estimates also show that nearly a half million people at least have been displaced in the period since the beginning of the fighting until May 7.

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