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U.S. general says will work 'aggressively' to enable free passage in the Gulf


RIYADH (Reuters) - U.S. Central Command chief General Kenneth McKenzie said on Thursday it was talking to other countries about freedom of navigation in the Gulf and would work "aggressively" to find a solution to enable free passage.

The United States has beefed up its military presence in the Middle East over a perceived Iranian threat and is asking allies to help protect strategic waters off Iran and Yemen, following attacks on oil tankers in Gulf waters in recent months.

"We are currently talking with the international community about the right to freedom of navigation in the Middle East that will include passage to the Strait of Hormuz and passage to the Bab al Mandeb," Mckenzie said.

Mckenzie made his comments before Iranian state TV broadcast a report that Iran had seized a foreign tanker smuggling fuel in the Gulf.

The U.S. general was talking to reporters in Riyadh at a joint news conference with General Prince Fahd bin Turki, commander of the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Iran-aligned Houthis in Yemen.

Asked if Saudi Arabia would have a role in a proposed international maritime security coalition, Prince Fahd said the coalition would continue to escort ships in the Red Sea.

"We have been doing that for the past few years and we have achieved great success in spite of some damage to civilian shipping," Prince Fahd said. "So we've been active in this field, we are practicing this at the Red Sea at Bab al Mandeb."

Earlier this month the Western-backed Sunni Muslim coalition led by Saudi Arabia said its naval forces foiled an attack on an unidentified commercial ship in the southern Red Sea by Houthi forces, which the group denied.

Washington and Riyadh have publicly blamed Iran and its proxies for the recent tanker attacks, a charge Tehran denies.

"We don't believe war with Iran is inevitable and we don't seek a war with Iran, what we seek is to deter Iran from the destabilizing and malign activities across the region," McKenzie said.

The Houthis have stepped up missile and drone attacks on Saudi Arabia, recently targeting oil installations and airports in cities near the border with Yemen, fuelling tensions.

Saudi officials took McKenzie on a tour of an exhibit displaying missiles and drones Riyadh says were produced by Iran and used in the Houthi attacks. Tehran denies supplying the group with arms and the Houthis say they manufacture their own.

(Reporting By Marwa Rashad, writing by Aziz El Yaakoubi)

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