A Saudi Arabian cargo ship feared to be carrying weapons for the Yemen conflict made a ‘cloak-and-dagger’ stop at a UK dock last night.
Fresh off a trans-Atlantic voyage, the state-owned Bahri Yanbu cargo ship stopped in Kent under cover of darkness for just over two hours from about 9pm.
Protesters had gathered at Tilbury Docks in Essex to demonstrate against the vessel’s planned arrival, but instead the 738ft ship made port in Sheerness late last night.
It is now sailed onto Cherbourg in northern France, but there has been no official comment on the nature of the shipment from the French or UK governments – although owners Bahri have confirmed there is military equipment on the vessel.
Amnesty International has admitted that it lacks specific evidence proving the ship is carrying arms to Saudi Arabia, given the secrecy surrounding its contents.
Amnesty International said the visit raises ‘serious concerns’ and asked what UK authorities knew about the Bahri Yanbu’s cargo.
Oliver Sprague, Amnesty International UK’s arms control director, said: ‘This cloak-and-dagger docking raises a whole host of very serious concerns over the UK’s possible part in continuing to fuel the deadly conflict in Yemen.
‘The Bahri Yanbu, a known arms delivery ship, hastily switched ports and was in and out of Sheerness under cover of darkness in less than three hours.’
The controversial cargo carrier was not in UK docks for long, spending just two hours and 12 minutes berthed in the Kent port.
Vessel-tracking information suggests the Bahri Yanbu arrived in Sheerness about 9.14pm and left about 11.27pm, for Cherbourg on its way home to the Persian Gulf.
Mr Sprague added: ‘This shadowy docking operation occurred while answers to vital legal questions were still being sought from the Government about the ship’s cargo and the licences that may have been issued to allow for weapons to pass through UK ports.
‘What did the UK authorities know about the Bahri Yanbu’s cargo when it docked at Sheerness last night? Were there arms bound for Yemen already on it, and were more weapons loaded aboard?’
Since leaving Houston, Texas the Saudi cargo ship has called at Wilmington, North Carolina, Dundalk, Maryland and then on to Saint John in Canada and Bremerhaven in Germany.
Protesters had gathered in Tilbury yesterday morning with anti-war banners to demonstrate against the Bahri Yanbu’s expected arrival.
Andrew Smith from Campaign Against Arms Trade said: ‘This ship should never have been allowed to dock in the UK.
‘If it is carrying weapons for use in Yemen then they could be used in war crimes and abuses for years to come.’
More protests against the Bahri Yanbu in the French port took place today, including activists from Amnesty International.
Amnesty International has admitted that ‘secrecy’ surrounding the ship’s current contents meant it could not be sure if it is currently carrying weapons.
But a spokesman for the group added: ‘The circumstances of the current voyage, and the ship’s deplorable record, raise a real risk that this is the case, and that states are again failing to live up to their legal obligations to stop illegal weapons transfers.’
The charity claimed data revealed that, since the war in Yemen began in 2015, the Bahri Yanbu had transferred about £280million worth of military and dual-use equipment on ten voyages from the US to Saudi Arabia before the current trip.
And on a previous voyage to multiple European ports in May 2019, the Bahri Yanbu was carrying £36million worth of US-made military components and equipment, according to Amnesty International.
An open letter to French prime minister Edouard Philippe from Human Rights Watch calls for guarantees that any cargo loaded onto the ship at Cherbourg ‘will not be used unlawfully against Yemeni civilians’.
Non-governmental groups had succeeded in preventing the same Bahri Yanbu vessel from docking in France last May, when it was set to receive a weapons shipment for Riyadh that sparked an outcry among activists.
France has come under fire for maintaining arms sales to the Saudi government even as it pursues a nearly five-year offensive against Huthi rebels, supported by Iran.
The war has claimed tens of thousands of lives, most of them civilians, according to nongovernmental groups. The UN has classified the Yemen war as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
A group of 17 NGOs, including Human Rights Watch and Oxfam France said the Bahri Yanbu, would dock in Cherbourg on France’s northern coast today, with stops also scheduled in Genoa, Italy.
They called on France to identify what would be loaded onto the Bahri Yanbu, which they say has an exclusive contract with the Saudi defence ministry.
If they are weapons, the NGOs demand ‘the guarantees France has that they will not be used illegally against Yemeni civilians.’
The French government has insisted there is no proof that civilians are being targeted by Saudi Arabia, one of the biggest purchasers of French military equipment in the Middle East.
President Emmanuel Macron has called Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which is participating in the Yemen campaign, France’s allies in the fight against Islamic terrorism.