DUBAI (Reuters) - An Iranian cargo ship carrying aid and activists crossed into the Gulf of Aden on Sunday and will reach Yemen's Hodaida port on May 21, Iranian media reported, in a challenge to Saudi-led naval forces controlling Yemeni waters.
A coalition of Arab countries led by Saudi Arabia has imposed searches on all ships trying to enter Yemen in a bid to prevent weapons being smuggled to the Iran-allied Houthi rebel group which controls much of the country, including Hodaida.
Iranian officials last week said they would not allow the Saudi-led forces to inspect the Iran Shahed, which is under military escort, and warned of war if the cargo ship was attacked. [ID:nL5N0Y42SB][ID:nL5N0Y52HL]
"After entering the Gulf of Aden today... we expect to be in the confines of Hodaida port early on May 21," the Iran Shahed's captain, Massoud Ghazi Mirsaid, was quoted as saying by state news agency IRNA.
Iran says the ship is carrying food aid, medical volunteers and seven Western activists, one of whom was identified by the Tasnim news agency as Caleb Maupin, a native of Ohio who has campaigned against war and the U.S. financial system.
"If they prevent (the ship from docking), which is likely, this is a major human rights violation," Tasnim quoted Maupin as saying in an interview on board the ship.
The presence of foreign activists has previously complicated plans to intercept ships carrying them. Israel faced criticism in 2010 when its forces raided a Gaza-bound flotilla, resulting in the deaths of nine Turkish activists on board. A 10th Turk died in May 2014 from wounds sustained in the incident.
Maupin also criticized a plea from his native United States that Iran redirect the ship to Djibouti, where the United Nations is coordinating relief efforts. [ID:nL5N0Y34D6]
Reuters ship tracking data showed the Iran Shahed located off the coast of eastern Yemen at 1110 GMT, heading west towards the Bab el-Mandeb strait, one of the world's busiest oil shipping routes.
Yemen's Vice President Khaled Bahah said on Sunday his administration favored an extension of a five-day ceasefire expiring in the evening but this would depend on the situation on the ground. [ID:nL5N0Y808J]
(Reporting by Sam Wilkin; Editing by William Maclean)