Armscor and the Ministry of Defence are at loggerheads over a consignment of weapons allegedly destined for civil war-torn Yemen. Eddie Koch and Paul Stober investigate
ARMSCOR and Defence Minister Joe Modise are caught in a growing storm over allegations that South Africa sent a large consignment of AK-47 assault rifles to Yemen in contravention of ANC policy that arms exports should not fuel civil wars and human rights abuses.
An adamant Armscor this week produced an “end user” certificate to back its claim that the guns were going to Lebanon. Armscor’s general manager of corporate communications, Abba Omar, yesterday said the arms had been delivered to Lebanon and the ship was in Beirut, on its way back to Cape Town.
But the manager of Elithe Shipping, a Danish company based in Copenhagen, this week emphatically denied Armscor claims that the shipment’s designation was Lebanon. Tofben Palle-Hansen this week said the shipment had been destined for Yemen with a bill of lading marked “special goods”. When it was discovered that these were arms, he had got “cold feet” and turned the ship back. The ship had been anchored outside Yemen for 10 days and was not in Beirut, as Armscor claims.
Modise’s ministry professes innocence, blaming Armscor for the situation. Ministry of Defence liaison officer Major Muff Anderson insisted the minister had no knowledge of the transaction or the origins of the arms. “We don’t even know how the weapons got from the defence force to Armscor,” she said.
Extra evidence shows that the weapons were destined for a parastatal weapons firm called the Yemen Economic Corporation, formerly known as the Armaments Economic Corporation.
The Weekly Mail & Guardian this week managed to contact the offices of the Yemen Economic Corporation by telephone but failed to obtain comment from the parastatal’s chairman, Abdullah Hadrami. Officials who answered the phone in Hadrami’s office said they were not able to speak English.
Yemen was created four years ago when the formerly Marxist South Yemen united with the conservative North Yemen. But the two states failed to merge politically and militarily and the new elected coalition government was divided about how best to rule the country. After a split in the coalition government in August last year, the former leader of South Yemen returned to Aden, his old capital — effectively paralysing Yemeni government and redividing the country.
In April this year, military units from North Yemen attacked the South and within weeks, after a series of armour and artillery duels, swept into Aden, forcibly reuniting the country.
The Arktis Pioneer, a 1599 prototon vessel carryng the AK-47 shipment, left the Yemeni harbour of Al Hudayadah this week after authorities refused to allow it to unload its cargo. “The ship is now sailing in the Red Sea. We are waiting further orders whether it should go back to Cape Town or go to another port,” Palle-Hansen told reporters.
He later added that a decision had been made “at the highest level” of the South African government and the ship’s captain would know by Thursday what course of action to follow.
He told Danish reporters his company would never ship arms to Lebanon in case they could be used by the PLO against Israel. “We would have refused to sell the equipment to Lebanon,” he said.
In a statement on Wednesday, Armscor indicated that the ship’s captain may have decided to return to South Africa from Beirut. “Attempts are being made to contact the captain,” said the statement.
Meanwhile, Anderson said on Wednesday that Modise was waiting for a report on the affair from Armscor before making a decision.
The question now arises as to the validity of Armscor’s certificate stating Lebanon as the destination for the arms. As Lebanon is no longer in a state of civil war, such a sale would not have contravened the country’s new arms exports policy.
The government of national unity has accepted, as a guideline to arms exports, to consider “whether the armaments could be used to suppress the local population, minorities or be used by insurgents”.
Asked if there was a possibility that one of the agents involved in putting the deal together had used the certificate as a cover to obscure a delivery of weapons to a country embroiled in civil war, Armscor official Bertus Cillier said he was not prepared to comment at this stage as the matter was “extremely sensitive”.
The Elithe Shipping company is alleged to have been a regular supplier of weapons to the government of Iran in the 1980s and was apparently involved in Colonel Oliver North’s Iran-Contra deal. That one of its vessels operated out of Cape Town suggests it may have been involved in clandestine arms shipments from Armscor to the Gulf that took place prior to the Allied invasion of Iraq.
Questions are now being raised about the source of the AK-47s. South African troops captured large quantities of Eastern bloc weaponry during their wars in Angola and Namibia and these are the most likely stocks to be used in the latest shipment.
However, researchers for military monitoring organisations this week said they would arrange for a question in parliament asking Modise to state specifically that the weapons were not from ANC caches that were handed over to the South African National Defence Force a few weeks ago.