ISTANBUL // Illegal shipments of tens of thousands of handguns and rifles from Turkish manufacturers, bound for Yemen and sometimes hidden in boxes of biscuits or labelled as plastic kitchen tools, have been seized in the past two years, officials say.
"There have been three cases in the last two years," a high-ranking Turkish government official said last week.
Yemeni authorities found the latest batch of weapons last week when they opened a container from Turkey that had reached the port of Aden on November 15 but had not been claimed.
Nothing is known about who ordered the weapons and to what purpose. Turkey insists that the arms shipments - blank-firing guns that can be turned into lethal weapons as well as assault rifles shooting live ammunition - were illegal and not part of it official foreign policy towards Yemen.
"Of course we are concerned about any illegal shipments," the government official told The National yesterday, speaking again on condition of anonymity.
He said the Turkish ambassador to Yemen was present when the container was opened last week. A total of 3,780 automatic rifles, labelled as plastic household items, were found inside, according to Agence France-Presse.
The Turkish official said publicity surrounding earlier cases might have scared off the potential recipient of the weapons. He said that in all three cases known so far, containers with the arms from Turkey were transferred from Turkish cargo ships to other vessels en route to Yemen, either in Dubai or the Egyptian port of Suez.
A week before the ship with the latest container docked in Aden last November, Yemeni authorities said they had seized a shipment of handguns from Turkey hidden in boxes of biscuits. In that case, around 3,000 pistols were found, according to news reports.
The biggest shipment intercepted so far was of about 16,000 pistols on their way from Turkey to Yemen in Dubai in March 2011. Six men, including a Turk, were sentenced to prison in June 2011 by a state security court in the UAE.
The Turkish government says it will act to find those responsible and bring them to justice.
"As it has been the case so far, our close dialogue and collaboration with Yemeni authorities will continue to unveil and bring to justice the perpetrators of such illegal activities and to prevent their repetition in the future," the foreign ministry in Ankara said in a statement last week.
Yemen's government has been waging a campaign against Al Qaeda's Yemeni branch, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (Aqap). Although the country's transitional president, Abdrabu Mansur Hadi, has struck several blows against Aqap, the terror network is estimated to have thousands of fighters in the country, Yemeni officials say.
Remnants of the regime of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who stepped down in February last year, have sought to capitalise on the instability. This has increased pressure on Mr Hadi, as some Yemenis say they preferred life under Mr Saleh because the country was safer then.
Given the complicated situation in Yemen, the Turkish government was careful not to get involved in the conflict, said Veysel Ayhan, director of the International Middle East Peace Research Centre, a think tank in Ankara. That stance meant it was very unlikely that the arms were shipped to Yemen with the government's consent, he said.
"They know it's a difficult conflict, and they are trying to keep out of it," Mr Ayhan said.
Yemen's coast guard last week also seized weapons, including surface-to-air-missiles, rocket-propelled grenades and bomb-making equipment, that US officials said might have been supplies from Iran to insurgents.
"This demonstrates the ever pernicious Iranian meddling in other countries in the region," a US official told Reuters.
In Turkey, the two companies involved in the latest case said they did not know how their products ended up in Yemen.
"We just saw it in the press," a spokesman for Safir Silah Sanayi in Istanbul said yesterday. More than a hundred T14 military-style assault rifles manufactured by Safir were among the weapons seized last week.
The spokesman, who declined to give his name, said his company had not been officially informed by authorities and could not say anything about who ordered the rifles because he did not know the serial numbers of the weapons.
A spokesman for the other arms manufacturer, Kurtulus Silah Sanayi in the central Anatolian city of Konya, told The Nationalyesterday he did not know anything about the arms container in Aden. "This is the first I've heard of it," he said.
With the prison sentences handed down in the UAE in 2011, Turkey considers the first of the three cases closed. The other two cases were still under investigation, the Turkish official said.
He said the first two shipments, in March 2011 and last November, consisted of non-lethal and blank-firing pistols that could be "changed into real guns very easily".
Fazli Corkan, Turkey's ambassador in Yemen, told the Turkish Radikal newspaper there were a number of small companies in Yemen that turned blank-firing weapons into lethal guns.
As to the question of the final destinations of the weapons, the diplomat said Yemen may have been used as a transit point for buyers in eastern Africa.
But Mr Ayhan, from the think tank in Ankara, said there was no confirmation. "The problem is: who is funding the military equipment?" he asked. "It's not the Turkish government, but we haven't any information about who is paying."