Arrival of more U.S. warships off Yemen tightens 'siege': Houthis

CAIRO (Reuters) - A senior official in the Iran-allied Houthi movement said the movement of more U.S. warships into waters off Yemen escalates Washington’s role in a Saudi-led campaign against the group and aims at tightening a “siege” on the country.

Saudi Arabia and Sunni Arab allies have been bombing the group for almost a month, in an operation which has closed Yemen’s sea and airports, blocking off food and other imports to the impoverished country.

“The goal of the movement of American ships is to strengthen the siege imposed on Yemen and put the Yemeni people under collective punishment,” Houthi politburo member Mohammed al-Bukhaiti told Reuters by telephone from Yemen.

“This step increases the level of their participation in this war,” he added.

The U.S. Navy has sent an aircraft carrier and a guided-missile cruiser into the waters near Yemen to conduct maritime security operations, a Pentagon spokesman said on Monday, but he denied the ships were on a mission to intercept Iranian arms shipments.

The ships will join seven other U.S. warships already in the waters near Yemen.

Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia believes Shi’ite Iran backs the Houthis, Islamists from an offshoot branch of Shi’ism, and aims to establish a foothold in the kingdom’s southern neighbor and undermine Gulf Arab security.

A senior Iranian official told Reuters in December a “few hundred” elite Iranian military personnel were in Yemen training Houthi fighters, and around a hundred Yemeni militiamen had traveled to Iran over the year, but Iran and the Houthis deny they have any military or economic relationship.

“Ansarullah (the Houthis) don’t need weapons from outside. We have enough,” al-Bukhaiti said.

Reporting By Mohammed Ghobari; Writing by Noah Browning, Editing by William Maclean and Dominic Evans