Yemen, Saudis join to stem weapons trade [Archives:2003/678/Front Page]

October 20 2003

Associated Press Writer

SA’DAH Oct. 17— In a grimy arms market in this border town, a salesman with a dagger tucked in his belt surveys firearms, grenades and launchers littering his shop. For $2,500, an 85mm surface-to-surface missile can be had that would destroy a car or blow through a building, arms dealers say.
Under U.S. pressure to keep illegal weapons out of terrorist hands, Yemen and Saudi Arabia have joined forces to stem the flow of weapons and explosives across their porous desert border. And U.S. military experts are training Yemen’s coast guard and spending $55 million to plug up arms-running routes along the Red Sea coast.
The crackdown is starting to be felt. Although trade at Yemen’s several arms markets remains brisk, on a recent visit, missiles that can down a plane were no longer on display. Security forces had collected them, said a local official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
However, dealers said anti-aircraft missiles could still be had for the right price.
“We have everything,” the border-town arms shopkeeper said, mumbling through a mouthful of qat, a mild stimulant on which nearly every Yemeni past teen age appears hooked. Any missiles? “Everything is available, just show me the dough,” added Yehia, who was in his 30s and eager for a sale, but reluctant to give his full name.
Yemen, an impoverished country at the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula, has long been awash in small arms — an estimated 60 million, or three for each of its 20 million people, authorities say.
After decades of going unchecked, the easy proliferation of arms and explosives in Yemen received world attention when 17 American sailors were killed in the October 2000 terrorist bombing of the USS Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden.
More recently, Saudi authorities said weapons and explosives smuggled across the border from Yemen were used in the May 12 suicide bombings of housing compounds in the Saudi capital of Riyadh that killed 35 people, including nine Saudi attackers.
Saudi officials have said the May bombers had links to al-Qaeda, the group suspected in the Sept. 11 attacks.
Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s roots straddle both sides of the border: He was born and raised in Saudi Arabia, and has strong ancestral ties to Yemen.
Every hour around the clock, weapons smuggled from Yemen are seized by Saudi police, Prince Mohammed bin Nasser, the governor of the Saudi border province of Jizan, said in August. Scores of militants have been arrested in Jizan with large smuggled weapons caches, Saudi newspapers have reported.
Since the Riyadh bombings Saudi border patrols have seized more than 90,000 ammunition rounds, dozens of grenades, more than 2,000 sticks of dynamite, hundreds of bazookas, and more than 1,200 other weapons, the chief of Saudi border police, Talal Mohsen Anqawi, told the Saudi daily Okaz last month.
The crackdown also is focusing on smuggling on Yemen’s 125-mile Red Sea coast, a gateway for contraband alcohol, drugs and weapons.
Small ships unload at any of dozens of flyspeck islands off shore, then parcel the goods onto yet smaller boats that slip through undetected to anywhere on the mainland, dealers say.
In an effort to choke off those routes, U.S. military experts have been training Yemeni coast guard forces to increase surveillance, and the United States is paying the $55 million cost of high-tech Australian speedboats that will be delivered next month.
In Yemen, guns are closely associated with rough justice. Gowned tribesmen swagger with handguns tucked under belts, or automatic rifles slung over shoulders.
Feuds are often settled with guns bought at markets in the capital, Sana’a, the nearby city of Ma’reb or in Sa’dah, about 30 miles south of the Saudi border.
Due to increased surveillance of the illegal arms trade, the price of weapons has nearly doubled in the last four months on the Saudi side of the border, said Mohammed, a weapons dealer at one market in Sa’dah.
An automatic rifle that sold for $185 now costs $320, said Mohammed, who would not give his last name.
He said Saudi buyers used to be frequent, but now only influential “connections” could get the weapons across the border — and for a price. Smuggling had not stopped, because it was the main income for many in the poor country, he added.
Sa’dah, 134 miles north of Sana’a, is renowned for its markets, each with its own peak day, when customers flock to sample the wares.
Saturday is busiest at Al-Talh, the most popular of the town’s arms markets, with nearly 4,000 visitors converging from all around Yemen.
Shops display automatic weapons, explosives and grenade launchers from China, Russia, Belgium, Spain and even Israel, a country Yemen doesn’t recognize or trade with.
“Demand for automatic rifles and ammunition is especially high whenever tribal clashes erupt,” said Mohammed, adding that anyone with cash could buy.
Since 1997, the parliament, dominated by tribal chiefs and headed by tribal leader Sheik Abdullah al-Ahmar, has resisted debating a law urged by the government to ban arms from the streets of major cities.
Tribal leaders fear the law would undermine their power, and the government is loathe to push. Ibrahim al-Hamdy, a former Yemeni president, was assassinated in 1978 in what many believe was a plot by tribal leaders angered by meddling in their affairs.
“It is no longer an issue of customs and traditions,” said Omar Abdel Aziz, a respected columnist and former head of Yemen’s state-run radio and television. “Tribal chiefs, parties and politicians should cooperate … so that security prevails,” he said.