A Saudi cargo ship believed by Spanish arms control groups to be laden with European weapons has left the port of Santander and set sail for Genoa, Italy.
The Bahri Yanbu left the northern Spanish port on Monday after loading two containers, Alberto Estevez, of the Control Arms Coalition of human rights and aid groups which is trying to stop arms reaching conflict zones, told The Associated Press news agency.
A Spanish government spokesman said the ship took on cargo contracted from private companies that he said was not illegal nor contravened any international laws.
A company called Instalaza, from Zaragoza, sent weaponry for a trade exhibition in the United Arab Emirates and it will be returned to Spain, while another company sent ceremonial cannon to Saudi Arabia, the spokesman told AP.
A government source cited by Reuters News Agency, meanwhile, said the two loads “comply with all the norms”.
“They are not for use in war,” the source added.
Countries are under pressure not to send arms to Saudi Arabia – the world’s largest arms importer from 2014 to 2018, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute – amid concerns they are being used by a pro-government Saudi-UAE-led military coalition against civilians in Yemen.
Other European countries, such as the UK and France, continue to export weapons to Saudi, however.
The Bahri Yanbu, which has been making its way around European ports in recent days, arrived in Santander from France on Friday.
Florence Parly, France’s defence minister, confirmed that the ship was meant to pick up French weapons in Le Havre as part of a contract signed with Saudi Arabia several years ago, the AP reported.
However, after French activists held a protest and sought emergency legal measures to try to stop the weapons supplies, the ship did not collect any arms in Le Havre after all, a lawyer representing the protesters told Reuters news agency.
According to Amnesty International, which has called for a halt in arms sales to all parties in Yemen’s war, the ship took on Belgian-made ammunition on May 3 in Antwerp before sailing to France.
“This is a serious test of EU countries’ resolve to uphold their obligations under the Arms Trade Treaty and EU Common Position on Arms Exports. Several states have failed this test in the space of just a few days,” said Ara Marcen Naval, Amnesty’s deputy director for Arms Control and Human Rights.
“No EU state should be making the deadly decision to authorise the transfer or transit of arms to a conflict where there is a clear risk they will be used in war crimes and other serious violations of international law,” Naval added.
The conflict in Yemen, home to an estimated 28 million people, began with the 2014 takeover of the capital, Sanaa, by the Houthis, who toppled the internationally-recognised government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
Concerned by the rise of the rebel group, believed to be backed by Iran, the Saudi-UAE-led military coalition launched an intervention in 2015 in the form of a massive air campaign aimed at reinstalling Hadi’s government.
The Houthis control the biggest urban centres while Hadi’s administration holds the southern port of Aden and a string of coastal towns.
The United Nations has said all sides in the conflict may have committed war crimes, including deadly air raids, rampant sexual violence, and the recruitment of child soldiers.
In a report published in August last year, the UN said air attacks by the Saudi-UAE-led coalition had caused the most direct civilian casualties in the war.