PARIS --- The French Armed Forces Ministry confirmed yesterday that the Saudi RO-RO vessel Bahri Yanbu was due at port of Le Havre to load French weapons being shipped to Saudi Arabia, amid the ongoing controversy on sales of Western military equipment to Riyadh and its use in the war in Yemen.
The Bahri Yanbu was waiting off the port of Le Havre Wednesday night. No details were given about the kind of weapons that she will load at the French port but Disclose, a new French online investigative media which first reported the shipment, mentioned Caesar guns, the truck-mounted 155mm artillery produced by French arms manufacturer Nexter. Eight of these guns were to be loaded in the afternoon of May 8, a public holiday in France, Disclose said, for shipment to the Saudi port of Jedda.
The site published a document it said was "a delivery plan" by Nexter for 24 Caesar guns in 2018 and 19 more in 2019, but the published facsimile of the document does not specify the destination, so these could be follow-on Saudi orders.
On Tuesday, Communist MP Jean-Paul Lecoq asked the government "Can you inform the representatives of the people of the planned loading in Le Havre in full transparency?" saying that the Bahri Tanbu was expected at Le Havre to “ship French-made artillery pieces to the Saudi port of Jeddah," Agence France-Presse reported on Wednesday.
Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly told BFM television Wednesday morning that the weapons would be loaded onto a Saudi cargo ship scheduled to arrive Wednesday in the French port of Le Havre, but refused to identify the type of weapons. She repeated France's stance that they have been used only for defensive purposes by Saudi Arabia since it began its Yemen offensive in 2015.
"As far as the French government is aware, we have no proof that the victims in Yemen are the result of the use of French weapons," Parly said.
Pressure has been mounting on the government since Disclose leaked a classified military note last month detailing the use of French tanks and artillery in the war against Huthi rebels.
On Tuesday, left-wing lawmakers stormed out of Parliament in protest after Genevieve Darrieussecq, the junior armed forces minister, said there was "no proof these weapons are being used against civilian populations".
France, the world's third-biggest arms exporter, counts Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as major clients, and has resisted pressure to stop arms sales to the Gulf countries.
It is a marked contrast with Germany, which has suspended its weapon sales to Saudi Arabia since last October.
"France has strategic interests in this part of the world," Parly said Wednesday, adding that the latest shipments were part of "long-term partnerships with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates".
The Bahri Yanbu arrived at Le Havre from the British port of Tilbury, according to the website Mer et Marines, and had previously stopped at Antwerp, Belgium, where local associations suspect arms are shipped by the Saudi Bahri shipping line. Media reports have also claimed the cargo ship is carrying weapons loaded in Belgium.
Since June 2018, the Saudi Bahri shipping line has operated a regular service between Saudi Arabia and Europe, a service advertised as bimonthly to serve ports in Germany, Belgium, the United Kingdom, Spain and Italy. The ships then make stops in Egypt, in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
In particular, this service was opened to transport military equipment purchased in Europe, with military cargoes supplemented with civilian equipment as available. This service has opened a regular line to replace the frequent but irregular stopovers previously made in France by Saudi vessels.