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French activists renew tussle with Saudi ship on suspected weapons voyage

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For the third time in under a year, a Saudi cargo ship headed for a French port this week on a suspected mission to collect weapons, prompting protests from NGOs who say French arms are being used to kill civilians in the brutal Yemeni conflict.

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The Bahri Yanbu docked in the port of Cherbourg on Thursday, on the coast of Normandy, where dozens of activists had gathered in protest at the sale of weapons to the Gulf state. It set sail again early the next morning after loading overnight, under cover of darkness and a heavy police presence.

Port authorities told local media they were not authorised to discuss the cargos content, only strengthening suspicions that the ship had come to collect French armaments – as it had on previous journeys.

“There are legitimate reasons to believe the cargo ship has come to collect weapons, and there is a real danger that these arms will then be used to commit atrocities in Yemen,” Aymeric Elluin, of Amnesty Internationals French branch, told FRANCE 24.

In a joint statement released ahead of the Bahri Yanbus arrival, Amnesty and 18 other NGOs, trade unions and left-wing parties accused Saudi Arabia of "waging a merciless war on the people of Yemen" and "perpetrating unspeakable atrocities against a defenceless people".

"We cannot accept that the port of Cherbourg be used to serve this conflict, in the name of the interests of arms dealers and their clients," they said, noting that the ships parent company Bahri has an exclusive contract with the Saudi defence ministry.

NGOs had succeeded in preventing the vessel from docking in the nearby port of Le Havre last May, when it was set to receive a weapons shipment for Riyadh that sparked a similar outcry. The ship was again barred from docking earlier this week in the Belgian port of Antwerp, following a protest by local activists.

Activists said the Bahri Yanbu is now expected to make an unscheduled stop in the Spanish port of Bilbao – similar to the secretive stop it made in nearby Santander last May – before sailing on to Italys Genoa, where further protests are expected.

“The #BahriYanbu has left for Spain this morning. Neither NGOs nor lawmakers will know what was loaded in #Cherbourg last night,” Olivier Faure, the head of the opposition Socialist Party, wrote in a tweet on Friday, calling for “permanent parliamentary oversight of French arms sales” to be put in place.

Le #BahriYanbu est parti ce matin vers l'Espagne. Ni les ONG ni les parlementaires ne sauront ce qui a été chargé à #Cherbourg cette nuit. Je réitère ma demande de mise en place d'un contrôle parlementaire permanent sur les ventes d'armes françaises. https://t.co/j7JUHj78AO

— Olivier Faure (@faureolivier) February 7, 2020

In their statement, the NGOs called on the French government to identify what would be loaded onto the Bahri Yanbu. Should the load by weapons, they urged the government to clarify what "guarantees it has that they will not be used illegally against Yemeni civilians".

There has been no official comment on the Saudi ship from the French government.

Defensive weapons

President Emmanuel Macrons government has repeatedly claimed that French arms sold to Saudi Arabia and its allies are used solely for defensive purposes, a stance that has become increasingly hard to maintain as the death toll from the devastating conflict continues to rise.

Pitting a Saudi-led coalition against Iranian-backed Houthi militias, the five-year conflict in Yemen has created the world's worst humanitarian crisis, according to the United Nations, whose investigators say both sides may have committed war crimes. Tens of thousands of people have been killed and some 24 million people are in need of assistRead More – Source