The Australian Navy seized a fishing vessel carrying 2,000 arms and ammunition off the coast of Somalia. The fishing vessel was found to have assault rifles, rocket propelled grenade (RPG) launchers, and mortar tubes hidden under fishing nets. The vessel is speculated to be part of a large illegal arms trade group trying to get weapons to Somalia.
The Australian HMAS Darwin made the discovery of the cache of weapons a month ago, about 170 miles off the coast of Oman. HMAS Darwin is part of the Combined Task Force 150, a multi-national anti-terror, piracy, and drug smuggling. Its members include the United States (US), Canada, United Kingdom (U.K.) and other allies.
Sailors from the HMAS Darwin boarded the craft when they noticed it did not have a state flag for identification. Australian Defense Ministry Spokesman noted there were 18 people of various nationalities on the ship they commandeered. Preliminary interviews with the crew suggested the ship was headed for Somalia.
While the Australian Navy have the power to take possession of the weapons from suspected traffickers but they do not have the power to arrest traffickers in international waters and were forced to let the ship go.
Ian McCounnaughey, a Lieutenant with the U.S. Navy Forces Central Command, believe the vessel originated from Iran. McConnaughey also said the weapons could have been bound for Yemen to be used by Iran-backed Shiite Houthi rebels. Iran has been accused before of trying to arm Houthi rebels during the civil war to counter Yemeni President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi, who is backed by Saudi Arabia and other Sunni gulf states.
United Nations (UN) sanctions authorize the interception of weapons headed for Somalia where the Jihadist group al-Shabaab is active. However, the UN does allow the sell of small arms to the western backed Somali government.
The embargo on arms to Somalia has been ongoing for decades going back to the start of the countries civil war in 1991. One western security source noted the street value of the cache of weapons the Australians recovered would go for $2 million.
Chief of Joint Operations Vice Admiral David Johnston noted, “Darwin’s successful boarding and subsequent seizure of weapons under fishing nets highlights the need to remain vigilant in the region.”
Operation MANITOU is the current name the Australian government has placed for its service to the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) efforts to promote maritime security in the region.
The confiscation of these weapons is a credit to the Australian Navy and the Combined Task Force 150 in maintain law and security in international waters. Whether the weapons were headed for Somalia or Yemen is still under investigation and may never be adequately confirmed.
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