- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 29, 2003

PRAGUE — The crates labeled “sporting and hunting weapons” looked innocuous. But inside, dozens of Czech-made sniper rifles were cradled in plastic foam. Their destination: Yemen, a hotbed of al Qaeda activity.

An unidentified licensed Czech arms dealer sold the rifles — along with 176 Soviet-era tanks, 60 tank cannons and a dozen L-39 combat jets — to the Yemeni government in the past four years, according to a new report by an arms-control advocacy group.

The Czech exports, part of the country’s $90 million-a-year arms trade, raise troubling questions about the ultimate buyers, since Yemen has a history of reselling arms to people from volatile nations across the Mideast and Africa, human rights groups say.

“You can never be sure that a country won’t resell the equipment as its own surplus. It’s a serious problem,” conceded Vratislav Vajnar, managing director of the Association of Defense Industry, a trade group representing the Czech Republic’s 120-plus weapons makers and exporters.

Al Qaeda terrorists are suspected in the USS Cole bombing that killed 17 U.S. sailors in the Yemeni port of Aden in October 2000.

That bombing turned up traces of C-4, a plastic explosive developed for the U.S. military during the Vietnam War. But Semtex, a Czech-made explosive, has been used in other terrorist bombings, and on Nov. 5 border police arrested three men as they tried to smuggle Semtex over the Czech border into Austria. Taped to one of the suspects’ bodies was 5 pounds of the powerful explosive — enough to blow up a dozen jetliners.

The recent Czech weapons trade was outlined in a report by Amnesty International, which cited customs records and other documents.

Amnesty, Transparency International and other groups have expressed growing concern about legal sales of legitimate weapons and armaments to countries such as Yemen that are unstable, have ties to militant groups or are known for reselling equipment to third parties.

Yemen, the ancestral home of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, is particular cause for concern. On Tuesday, Yemeni security forces captured a man described as one of the country’s top al Qaeda leaders and the suspected mastermind of the Cole bombing.

“Weapons sold to Yemen have ended up in Somalia and Sudan,” Karel Dolejsi, who tracks questionable Czech arms deals for Amnesty, told the Associated Press. “Our leaders still have a communist mentality. They don’t believe this information is for the public.”

Czech authorities acknowledge the country’s manufacturers and exporters have sold aircraft, tanks, weapons, ammunition and other military equipment to Yemen, Algeria, Angola, Colombia, Sri Lanka and other hot spots.

Although there is no hard evidence that terrorists have obtained arms from the Czech Republic, human rights groups say the risk is real that deadly weaponry will fall into the wrong hands.

In its report, Amnesty called on the Czech government — one of the few exporting nations to keep weapons sales a state secret — to make public the details of such transactions.

That secrecy will end next spring, when the country — a NATO member and a U.S. ally with 275 troops in Iraq — joins the European Union. The EU’s code of conduct requires member states to publicize information on arms exports.

Companies are generally free to sell to countries such as Yemen that are not under U.N. arms embargoes, but officials carefully screen each transaction before giving their approval, said Ivo Mravinac, a spokesman for the Trade and Industry Ministry, which oversees the process.

“In the case that terrorism might be involved, the decision is of course negative,” Mr. Mravinac said.

“But unless there are signals indicating something like that, the Foreign Ministry must contemplate whether it is appropriate to cast doubts on the guarantees given by the foreign government.”

Mr. Vajnar, the Czech arms trade representative, believes the government’s checklist for arms deals, and the burden on foreign governments to furnish credible “end-use certificates” proving the weapons are destined for armies — not terrorists or their middlemen — provide adequate security.

“If something isn’t clear, the sale is stopped. You’re out of luck,” he said.

Last year, Czech authorities rejected 21 requests to export arms to several countries, including Iran, Mr. Mravinac said. They approved 1,090 other requests. Mr. Mravinac declined to identify the nations involved.

The Czech sales are dwarfed by those of the United States, by far the world’s largest weapons exporter with $15 billion in annual business. Britain, Israel, Russia, France, Germany, China and Sweden are among other major players.

During the era of communism, which ended in 1989, then-Czechoslovakia was among the world’s chief arms exporters. It sold hundreds of tanks, thousands of firearms and large quantities of Semtex to Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Cambodia and other trouble spots, a practice the government insists stopped long ago.

Libyan terrorists used Semtex in 1988 to down Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 persons.

Although its market share since has shrunk, the Czech Republic remains a haven for arms dealers hawking high-quality weaponry including Skorpion submachine guns, L-159 subsonic light combat aircraft, Tamara mobile radar systems and a wide array of precision small-caliber handguns.

Applications for licenses to export Czech weapons jumped by nearly 40 percent this year. Neither the government nor the industry could explain the sudden interest, but both pointed to a surplus of military equipment that the army is trying to unload.

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