Missing Navy SEALs now presumed dead after going into the water on night mission

The U.S. military has ended an “exhaustive” 10-day search and rescue mission for two Navy SEALs who went missing on Jan. 11 in the waters of the Gulf of Aden and are now presumed deceased, according to a new statement from U.S. Central Command.

The military is conducting recovery operations for the service members, CENTCOM said Sunday night.

“We mourn the loss of our two Naval Special Warfare warriors, and we will forever honor their sacrifice and example. Our prayers are with the SEALs’ families, friends, the U.S. Navy, and the entire Special Operations community during this time,” Gen. Michael Erik Kurilla, CENTCOM’s commander, said in the statement.

Military officials said that the U.S., Japan and Spain used air and naval resources and “searched more than 21,000 square miles” for the missing SEALs, scouring the gulf off the coast of Somalia — to no avail.

“Out of respect for the families, no further information will be released at this time,” CENTCOM said.

The two SEALs went into water in mid-January during a nighttime boarding mission to interdict a dhow suspected of carrying Iranian-made weapons for Houthi militants in Yemen, military officials have said.

Dhows are small fishing or cargo vessels that are sometimes used by Iran to smuggle weapons.

As a small Navy craft approached the dhow on Jan. 11, one of the SEALs fell into rough waters and, following protocol, a second SEAL dove into the water in a rescue attempt, according to officials.

The rest of the SEALs continued with the mission on the dhow and seized Iranian-made ballistic and cruise missile parts and warheads similar to those being used by the Houthis in more than 30 attacks on commercial vessels in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, officials said.

The Houthis have said their attacks are in response to Israel’s bombardment of Gaza as the Israelis target Hamas fighters as retaliation for Hamas’ Oct. 7 terror attack.

For years, the U.S. Navy has intercepted dhows in the Gulf of Aden that are suspected of carrying Iranian-made weapons to the Houthis.

During these missions, boarding teams typically pull aside the dhows in small water craft to undertake a “flag verification” mission if the dhow is unflagged or has replaced its flag to mask its smuggling.

The seizure involving the SEALs was the first since the Houthis began their strikes, most of which have been repelled by U.S., French and British warships.

The SEALs were operating from the USS Lewis B Puller, an expeditionary sea base and converted freighter topped with landing decks for helicopters and capable of releasing small watercraft.

“In the wintertime, the sea state is typically 8-12 feet,” said Eric Oehlerich, an ABC News contributor and retired SEAL commander. “The horizon is flat, so 8-12 feet is 8 feet above the flat horizon — and then eight feet, it’s like a 16 foot wave.”

According to Oehlerich, those high-water conditions increase the risk to nighttime ship boardings, which are carried out in pitch-black darkness.

He described it as one of the most difficult missions that a SEAL can undertake, requiring constant training.

“You have the risk of your boat capsizing in close proximity to larger vessels, you have to establish a solid ladder point, you have to climb a ladder at night over the open ocean between two ships — they’re smashing into each other — and then get on board,” he said.

“And then your problem starts with what you’re going to do … with whomever is on board that boat,” he added.

The Jan. 11 seizure also marked the first time since November 2019 that the U.S. Navy has taken Iranian-made ballistic missile and cruise missile components believed to be headed for the Houthis.

The military said the 14 mariners aboard the dhow were taken off the vessel and are in U.S. custody, though their future status remains to be determined.

After they were taken off the dhow, the vessel was deemed unsafe and sunk by naval forces.

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