DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — A militia leader and nephew of Yemen's late strongman president has acknowledged that his Emirati-backed troops are stationed on an island in a crucial maritime chokepoint where a mysterious air base is now under construction.
The comments by Tariq Saleh come as ship-tracking data show that at least two Emirati-owned vessels have traveled to Mayun Island since an Associated Press story in May highlighted the base's construction.
The United Arab Emirates has not responded to repeated requests for comment about the base. However, a Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen against the Houthi rebels who hold its capital, Sanaa, later acknowledged having “equipment” on the island in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait.
While no country has claimed the air base, shipping traffic associated with a prior attempt to build a massive runway across the 5.6-kilometer (3.5 mile)-long island years ago links back to the UAE as well. Officials associated with Yemen's internationally recognized government have demanded a formal investigation into the base.
Speaking in an interview published Monday by the Arabic service of Russia's state-owned Sputnik news agency, Saleh acknowledged the presence of troops from his National Resistance Forces militia on Mayun Island.
“We have forces affiliated with the Yemeni Coast Guard ... present on the island of Mayun, and there is also a small force of the Arab coalition forces present on the island represented by the Saudi forces,” Saleh said, according to Sputnik. “The runway was built to provide future logistical support for the joint forces on the western coast, or for any other parties.”
He added that Mayun Island “is a Yemeni island and will remain in Yemen."
Saleh, like his late uncle, once fought alongside the Iranian-backed Houthis and then switched sides in late 2017 as the Houthis killed his uncle, Ali Abdullah Saleh. Now based in the Yemeni city of Mokha, Saleh is believed to have as many as 20,000 troops under his command, said Gregory D. Johnsen, a Yemen analyst.
In May, Saleh told the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies that his militia was in a “partnership” with the UAE.
A U.N. panel of experts report this year, quoting Yemen's internationally recognized government, described Saleh's forces as being “backed by the UAE and (they) do not come under the General Staff or Ministry of Defense.” Other UAE-backed forces have even battled other government troops in the past.
Military officials with Yemen’s internationally recognized government, which the Saudi-led coalition has backed since 2015, earlier told The Associated Press that the UAE is building the runway. They spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak publicly to journalists.
Mayun, also known as Perim Island, is located about 3.5 kilometers (2 miles) off the southwestern edge of Yemen. World powers have recognized the island’s strategic location for hundreds of years, especially with the opening of the Suez Canal linking the Mediterranean and Red Seas.
A runway the length of the one built on Mayun can accommodate attack, surveillance and transport aircraft.
Since June 1, at least two Emirati-flagged vessels have traveled to Mayun, according to ship-tracking data the AP analyzed from the website MarineTraffic.com. One, the landing craft Hawaya, came at night on June 1. The other, the cargo vessel Naayem, docked there twice on June 4, and once on June 10.
Both vessel also have shuttled to Mokha and Mukalla, a city in eastern Yemen associated with the Emirati military campaign in the country, before returning to the UAE.
Both the Hawaya and the Naayem are associated with Abu Dhabi-based Khalid Faraj Shipping, a firm that's part of Liwa Marine Services. The companies did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.