What is a Canadian-made sniper rifle doing in the war in Yemen?
Bolt-action .50 caliber rifles have been spotted, thanks to social media, in the conflict that has ravaged Yemen since last year, drawing focus on Canada's weapons exports to Saudi Arabia, which is engaged in a military campaign against Houthi rebels.
The social media reports, picked up by Armament Research Services (ARES) — an intelligence consultant agency that monitors the flow of weapons worldwide — indicate that the heavy-duty LRT-3 sniper rifle was "seized by Houthi forces on 11 June 2015 after clashes with Saudi border guards," ARS writes in a November, 2015 blog post.
Canadian broadcaster CBC reports that Saudi border guards appeared to be equipped with the Canadian-made rifles as of last year.
Other videos reportedly show Houthis brandishing American-made M82A1 semi-automatic rifles, also originally provided to Saudi Arabia by the United States.
"A pile of guns has been [stolen] on Tuwaiq mountain for the third time today and [Saudis] have yet to understand that their military defenses have been compromised and this is the opponent's weapon in the grip of the heroes of Yemen," reads the tweet, purportedly on behalf of the Houthi rebels.
The fighting between the Houthis and forces loyal to president Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, who fled the country and is supported by airstrikes from a coalition led by Saudi Arabia with US assistance, has killed thousands and created a vacuum exploited by al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula, which now controls a section of southern Yemen.
In Canada, meanwhile, the government of Justin Trudeau has tried to distance itself from the close trading relationship with Riyadh, saying last week that it doesn't support a multi-billion dollar arms deal, but that it will honor it. That hasn't stopped the weapon shipments, however.
Canada is a major exporter of weapons to Saudi Arabia, most recently — and infamously — signing a $15 billion deal to export armored vehicles to the Saudis, who are accused of frequent bombing of civilians in Yemen and have a record of human rights violations at home as well.
"First of all, the government is not approving this contract," Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion said of the deal last week. "The government is simply refusing to cancel a contract approved by the former government, a contract between a private company and Saudi Arabia."
That deal, however, is just one of many that is backed by the Canadian government and its agencies. Emails obtained by VICE News last November from the Canadian Commercial Corporation (CCC), a government entity charged with trade promotion, show that Ottawa had skin in the game.
"CCC expects to establish a presence in KSA (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia) in due course to manage the contract," the emails read, noting that the state-run corporation would get a "substantial service fee for its role."
But on top of the Canadian division of General Dynamics which signed the $15 billion deal, and Winnipeg-based PGW Defence Technologies — which sold the Saudis the sniper rifles for roughly $1.2 million — a litany of Canadian companies are getting in on the action.
Asked in January whether Canada would consider putting any new restrictions on weapons exports to Saudi Arabia, the Trudeau government said they were not.