The Royal Australian Navy (RAN) warship HMAS Darwin has seized over 2 000 small arms, rocket propelled grenades and mortars from a fishing vessel off Oman, and believed to be on its way to Somalia.
The Royal Australian Navy on Monday said the HMAS Darwin intercepted a fishing vessel approximately 170 nautical miles (313 kilometres) off the coast of Oman to conduct a flag verification boarding. “After assessing the vessel to be stateless, 1 989 AK-47 assault rifles, 100 rocket propelled grenade launchers, 49 PKM general purpose machine guns, 39 PKM spare barrels and 20 60 mm mortar tubes were seized from the vessel that was headed towards the Somalia coast,” the RAN said.
The weapons were seized under United Nations sanctions which authorise interdiction on the high seas of illicit weapons destined for Somalia. The United Nations has a decades-long arms embargo in place against Somalia, which has been mired in conflict since civil war broke out in 1991.
In 2013, the U.N Security Council eased some of the embargo restrictions, allowing the Western-backed government in Mogadishu to buy light weapons to bolster its armed forces in the battle against Islamist al Shabaab insurgents, who are aligned with al Qaeda, Reuters reports.
Vice Admiral David Johnston, Chief of Joint Operations, said the seizure on Darwin’s first patrol of such a large haul of illicit weapons is highly significant. “Australia worked as part of the multinational Combined Maritime Forces to discover and seize these illegal weapons. One of the key reasons HMAS Darwin is deployed to the region is to contribute to global security and counter international terrorism,” Vice Admiral Johnston said.
“Darwin’s successful boarding and subsequent seizure of the weapons concealed under fishing nets highlights the need to remain vigilant in the region.”
Lieutenant Ian McConnaughey, a spokesman for US Naval Forces Central Command, told NBC News that the boat may have originated from Iran and may have been delivering weapons to Iran-backed Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen. He added they will probably be transferred to United States custody for further analysis and disposal.
However, the US Navy later said the weapons were headed for Somalia and seized because of the existing embargo against Somalia, although Iran is also currently prohibited from exporting weapons under the terms of the nuclear deal agreed last year.
The weapons were discovered aboard the fishing vessel on 27 February but the find was only announced yesterday.
As the task force does not have authority to detain traffickers in international waters, the crew of the vessel was released after the weapons were seized, NBC News reports.
In September last year the Saudi Arabian-led coalition in Yemen said it had seized a fishing boat 240 km southeast of Oman carrying artillery shells and rockets destined for Houthi rebels. All 14 Iranian crewmembers were detained, although they were later released.
HMAS Darwin is deployed to the Middle East region as part of Operation MANITOU and operates under Combined Task Force 150, responsible for counter-terrorism operations within the region. Operation MANITOU is the Australian Government’s contribution to the multinational Combined Maritime Forces’ efforts to promote maritime security, stability and prosperity in the region.
Darwin is assigned to the Australian-led Combined Task Force 150 as part of a multinational effort to prevent terrorism, piracy and drug smuggling, encourage regional cooperation and promote a secure maritime environment in the Middle East and off the north east coast of Africa, the RAN said. This is Darwin’s seventh deployment to the Middle East and is the 62nd rotation of a Royal Australian Navy vessel in the region since 1990.