US navy probes illicit Chinese weapons seized at sea


May 10, 2021


Weapons seized by the US Navy are seen on board the guided-missile cruiser USS Monterey on Saturday [US Navy via AP]


By Aggrey Mutambo | The Citizen


The US Navy says it is investigating the source and destination of a large cache of Chinese rifles confiscated from a flagless dhow in the Arabian Sea on Friday.

A statement from the Public Affairs Section of the US Navy said the origin of the cache will also be investigated through a multiagency operation even though the weapons will be destroyed.

“The cache of weapons included dozens of advanced Russian-made anti-tank guided missiles, thousands of Chinese Type 56 assault rifles, and hundreds of PKM machine guns, sniper rifles and rocket-propelled grenades launchers,” said a statement posted on a US government news website for navy operations.

“Other weapon components included advanced optical sights,” the statement added.

Government-to-government purchases

Such kinds of weapons normally require government-to-government purchases, but could still be accessed by militant groups often through smuggling.

The dhow carrying the weapons was spotted on the night of May 7 by the US guided-missile cruiser USS Monterey (CG 61). The stateless dhow was travelling in international waters in an area in the North Arabian Sea, which borders the Somali sea.

Neither Russia nor the Chinese government immediately responded to the findings. But the cache could point to a series of illegal networks that have worked to defeat arms embargoes or illicit arms trading in the Horn of Africa and the Middle East, where conflict has continued.

Somalia arms embargo

In Somalia, an arms embargo has been imposed since 1993 to control access to weapons by warring parties. This seized cache, if headed to Somalia, would normally violate the ban by the UN Security Council, including restrictions on purchase, since 1992.

With time, the Council has varied the embargo by allowing certain weapons to be bought for the government in Somalia as long as authorised personnel obtain permission to purchase weapons that are allowed.

Nonetheless, investigations by a UN Panel of Experts on Somalia have, since 2016, reported incidents of arms purchased through government authorities being found in the hands of militants, as well as weapons illegally purchased.

In 2016, the Australian Navy impounded weapons it said had been headed for Somalia north of the Indian Ocean near the Arabian Sea. They included about 2,000 AK-47 rifles, 100 rocket-propelled grenades launchers and 49 PKM machine guns, all of which were in violation of the embargo.

Secure navigation lanes

Australia, India, US, UK, France and a number of other Western powers routinely run a coalition of sea security operations to secure navigation lanes in the Indian Ocean. Initially, they targeted pirates, but now operate to guard against illicit trade in weapons and other harmful cargo, which Washington sees as necessary to ensure unhindered commercial shipping, prevention of terrorism or drug trafficking.

The US says it conducts such operations with partners to determine patterns of life in the maritime as well as to enhance mariner-to-mariner relations.

“These operations reassure allies and partners and preserve freedom of navigation and free flow of commerce.”

A statement from the US Navy said USS Monterey and its embarked US Coast Guard Advanced Interdiction Team (AIT) “discovered the illicit cargo during a routine flag verification boarding conducted in international water in accordance with customary international law.”

“The original source and intended destination of the materiel is currently under investigation. The materiel is in US custody awaiting final disposition.”

Photos released on Saturday showed thousands of rifles from an operation conducted under the US Fifth Fleet and which lasted about 36 hours.

The US Navy said it confiscated the weapons but let the crew free after determining the dhow was still safe to use.

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