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Why are Spanish weapons being used in the war in Yemen?

Four NGOs demand an independent investigation into final destination of arms acquired by Saudi Arabia

Video showing some of the Spanish weapons.

On January 8, Yemen Fights Back, a website run by the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, showed images of a Spanish C90 grenade launcher among the automatic rifles, ammunition and personal documents abandoned by the “Saudi mercenaries” in Tuwal on the Yemen-Saudi border. A week later, the same publication showed close-ups of two more C90s, this time in Raboha City, also on the Saudi-Yemen border. The weapons were manufactured by the Spanish company, Instalaza.

More than a month later, on February 23, a video was posted on social media showing Houthi militia in the Yemeni town of Midi, near the Red Sea, celebrating the capture of a BMR-600, a military vehicle made by the Spanish company Enasa.

Spanish-made RPGs and hand grenades have found their way into Houthi rebel hands

News of the conflict in Yemen between the Houthi rebels – mainly Shia forces loyal to the former President Saleh – and the Saudi-led Sunni alliance has largely been eclipsed by the war in Syria and Iraq. Nonetheless, more than 6,700 people have been killed and three million civilians made homeless.

Hostilities broke out in September 2014 when the Houthi rebels took the capital of Sana’a and deposed President Mansur al-Hadi. With a coalition of about 10 Sunni countries and the logistical support of the US, UK and Turkey, Saudi Arabia intervened in March 2015 to reinstate President Mansur al-Hadi, Saleh’s successor.

But what should have been a brief campaign has turned into a long, drawn-out power struggle with an air, sea and land blockade that has left 80% of the population on the brink of starvation and 1.5 million children suffering acute malnutrition, according to UNICEF, while both sides have been accused of war crimes by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

So how did Spanish grenade launchers and other munitions find their way into the conflict?

Other Spanish arms sold to Saudi Arabia’s allies are expected to turn up in Yemen

After Europe, the Saudi regime is the Spanish arms industry’s most important client and has been for some time. In 2015, it bought €540 million worth of Spanish weapons – 15% of Spain’s total arms sales. Most of this money was spent on in-flight refueling aircraft, but also paid for bombs, missiles and artillery shells.

Armament Research Services (ARES), an Australian outfit specializing in arms and ammunition data, has identified two Spanish-made weapons in Houthi rebel hands – the previously mentioned Instalaza C90 RPG, and Alhambra hand grenades.

The ARES report concluded that these munitions had probably been captured by the rebel forces from Saudi troops or their allies. According to ARES, around 5,000 C90-CR grenade launchers were sold to the Saudi army at the start of the 1990s. As for the Alhambra grenades, they could have been part of a €23.2-million arms deal in 2004.

The list of Spanish military munitions confirmed to be in Yemen also includes the VAMTAC high mobility tactical vehicle

Yago Rodríguez, a Middle East expert and co-author of the ARES report, says there were also BMR-600 Pegaso vehicles, at least 140 of which were sold to Saudi Arabia in 1983. “Most of the BMR-600s that have been either captured or destroyed were in the Harad district where the Saudi Marine forces suffered losses at the hands of the rebels last February,” says Rodríguez.

The list of Spanish military munitions confirmed to be in Yemen also includes the VAMTAC high mobility tactical vehicle produced by Urovesa, while Rodríguez believes that sooner or later other Spanish arms sold to Saudi Arabia’s allies will also turn up, such as aircraft bombs, artillery shells, tanks and mortar shells.

The 2015 trade report on the foreign sale of Spanish munitions states clearly that, “All the arms licenses [for Saudi Arabia] were accompanied by final destination certificates with a strict clause prohibiting re-export or use outside home territory.”

Judging from the videos doing the rounds on social media, it appears that this clause has not been strictly adhered to. Recently, four NGOs – Amnesty International, FundiPai, Greenpeace and Oxfam Intermon – working for the Control Arms campaign, sent a letter to Spain’s Economy Ministry asking for an independent investigation into Spanish arms diverted to the Yemen conflict, to be made public along with the adoption of legal guarantees controlling both their use and those who use them. The letter is still awaiting a reply.

English version by Heather Galloway.

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