A huge pile of rusting AK-47 assault rifles is tucked into a corner, just below the deck of the USS Jason Dunham. It is serving as a grim reminder of how difficult it is to catch weapons which smugglers have been believed to be trafficking into Yemen.
On Thursday U.N. inspectors boarded the American guided-missile destroyer, to examine the more than 2,500 guns the crew seized in late August and determine if suspicions are true that the weapons originated in Iran.
U.S. officials have long accused Iran of smuggling arms across the waters to Yemen’s Shiite Houthi rebels, who have held Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, since September 2014. But they have only managed to seize a handful of weapons caches in recent years, underscoring the difficulties in tracking down arms smugglers working the vast waters around Yemen.
Vice Adm. Scott Stearney, commander of U.S. 5th Fleet, told reporters on Thursday that it is one big traffic corridor which is not blocked.
Stearney however declined to say if he thought that Iran was responsible for the shipment. He did say that the U.N. inspectors were experts on illicit weapons from Iran, Yemen and Somalia.
The USS Jason Dunham on patrol in the region noticed that large bags were being transferred from a dhow approximately 70 miles off the coast of Yemen and into a smaller skiff. A dhow is a very traditional ship that commonly sails over the waters of the Persian Gulf region. The Navy ship intercepted the skiff and determined they were smuggling weapon after talking to the crew on board.
The rifles which were in bundles of four or five, were wrapped in plastic and then wrapped in Styrofoam. They were hidden in green burlap bags, according to the commander of the Dunham, Navy Cmdr. John Hamilton.
On Wednesday, for sometime a small number of reporters were allowed to see the assault rifles, which were stained with rust after almost two months at sea. The weapons were unpacked and piled up. They were ready to be inspected the following day by the United Nations team.
Hamilton said that the crew on the dhow earlier told them that they were carrying flour and wheat, but there was neither of both on board.