The illegal flow of arms is potentially embarrassing for Turkey, a regional power that has advocated a non-violent transition to democracy in Arab countries that have seen political upheaval in recent years. Thomas Seibert reports from Istanbul
Turkey fights to stem arms smuggling
ISTANBUL // Turkish custom agents knew exactly what they were looking for when they searched the Libyan-flagged fishing vessel.
Thanks to a last-minute tip, what was supposed to be an empty cargo hold was discovered to be carrying almost 1,000 pump-action shotguns and more than 400 handguns.
"Arms and munitions were discovered on a ship bound for Libya on April 21 in Istanbul," a Turkish official said.
The discovery followed other major weapons seizures in the country after smugglers saw an opportunity to turn turmoil in Arab Spring countries into money.
The illegal flow of arms is potentially embarrassing for Turkey, a regional power that has advocated a non-violent transition to democracy in Arab countries that have seen political upheaval in recent years.
Ankara says it was doing all it could to stop illegal arms shipments.
Arriving in Turkey from Malta without cargo in early April, the Libya-flagged fishing vessel Al Entisar docked at a shipyard south of Istanbul for what the crew described as a routine inspection, according to customs officials.
The crew told Turkish officials the ship was to travel on to Libya after the inspection, again without cargo.
But following a tip-off that came as Al Entisar left for Libya, customs officials redirected the vessel to Haydarpasa port on Istanbul's Asian side and had it searched.
Agents found 990 pump guns, 210 9mm handguns, 199 7.65mm handguns, 251,000 rounds of rifle ammunition, 5,000 rounds of handgun ammunition, 260 rounds of machine-gun ammunition and two gas masks.
The captain, a Libyan whose name has been withheld, was arrested and put in pretrial detention, but the suppliers of the arms and the potential buyers remained unknown. The Turkish official said the police were trying to find out who was behind the smuggling attempt.
"The matter currently is in the hands of the judiciary and all possible measures and steps, including cooperation with Libyan authorities, shall be sought to advance this investigation," he said.
Nebahat Tanriverdi O Yasar, an expert on North Africa at the Centre for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (Orsam), a think tank in Ankara, said continuing tensions in Libya meant that there was still a demand for guns two years after Muammar Qaddafi was removed from power in a civil war.
"The civil war has not ended in Libya. Fighting is still going on," Ms Tanriverdi said.
It was not the first time that Al Entisar was named in connection with a suspected arms smuggling attempt in Turkish territory.
According to unconfirmed British and US news reports, the ship delivered weapons, including surface-to-air missiles, from Libya to Syrian rebels in Turkey last year. At that time, the ship docked in the southern Turkish port of Iskenderun, 40 kilometres west of the Turkish-Syrian border.
The Turkish government, in response to a question raised by the opposition in parliament, confirmed in November that Al Entisar had called at Iskenderun in August, but said it carried 353 tonnes of clothing, food and medical supplies meant for a Turkish charity involved in relief efforts for Syrian civilians.
Ankara is a strong supporter of the opposition fighting to overthrow Syria's president Bashar Al Assad and has allowed Syrian rebels to operate from Turkish territory.
But Turkey said it was trying to prevent arms deliveries into Syria, even though the long border made it difficult to control the situation.
"Since we neighbour an environment where violence and armed conflict is constantly escalating, we are not immune to such acts of organised crime and illicit trafficking," the Turkish official said. The civil war in neighbouring Syria is estimated to have killed more than 94,000 people since it began in March 2011.
"Relevant Turkish authorities are taking the necessary measures with a view to prevent the illegal flow of arms to Syria" or any other country, the official said.
"In this context, there have been a number of cases in which the security forces have successfully seized illegal shipments of weapons."
In January, Turkey said tens of thousands of handguns and rifles bound for Yemen from Turkey had been seized since 2011. A Turkish official said at the time that containers with arms from Turkey were transferred from Turkish cargo ships to other vessels en route to Yemen, either in Dubai or Suez, Egypt.
Nothing is known about who ordered the Yemen-bound weapons, blank-firing guns that can be converted into lethal weapons as well as assault rifles, or for what purpose.
Attempts to smuggle arms from Turkey to Yemen were still being uncovered, the official said.
"Unfortunately, there have been a number of illegal shipments of arms to Yemen in the past few months," he said.
"The majority of arms involved in these shipments are discovered to be blank pistols, for which controls are less stringent then for actual firearms. We are working very closely with Yemeni authorities on these cases."
The official said Ankara was also in touch with Turkish arms producers to "urge restraint in the exports of less-controlled items like blank pistols to sensitive destinations".
Tighter export controls were also being considered.