UN inspectors are examining more than 2,500 AK-47 rifles and other guns seized by the crew of a U.S. destroyer off the coast of Yemen to determine whether the weapons originated in Iran or Somalia.
U.S. authorities said they invited the UN inspectors on board on October 25 to determine whether the weapons provide proof that Iran is smuggling arms to allied Shi'ite Huthi rebels that are battling the Yemeni government in a four-year civil war. Iran has denied providing weapons to the Huthis.
The United States -- in debates at the United Nations -- has repeatedly charged Iran with illegally smuggling weapons to the Huthis, in violation of UN resolutions against arming the Huthis.
Yet U.S. forces patrolling the waters around Yemen have managed to seize only a handful of weapons caches like the one seized by the USS Jason Dunham in late August.
"It's one big traffic corridor," Vice Admiral Scott Stearney, commander of the U.S. 5th Fleet, told reporters on board the vessel on October 25, speaking of the Gulf of Aden and other waterways around Yemen.
Stearney declined to say if he thought Iran was responsible for the weapons seized by the Dunham's crew, but he said the UN inspectors were experts on illicit weapons from Iran, Yemen, and Somalia.
The U.S. destroyer's crew while on patrol in the region in August noticed large bags being transferred from a dhow about 70 miles off the coast of Yemen into a smaller skiff. A dhow is a traditional ship that commonly sails the waters of the Persian Gulf region.
The Navy ship intercepted the skiff and, after talking to the crew on board, determined they were smuggling weapons.
The rifles, in bundles of four or five, were wrapped in plastic, then wrapped in styrofoam and hidden in green burlap bags, according to Navy Commander John Hamilton, commander of the Dunham.
A small number of reporters on board the ship were allowed to see the assault rifles, which were heavily rusted after nearly two months at sea. The weapons had been unpacked and piled up, and were ready to be inspected by the UN team.
Hamilton said the crew on the dhow told them they were carrying flour and wheat, but he said none of the foodstuffs were found on board.
Navy Captain Adan Cruz, commodore of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, said the weapons could have been shipped from Somalia rather than Iran. The UN inspectors, he said, will determine the guns' origin and "see first-hand the weapons flowing into the region."
UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, in calling for a crackdown on Iran at the UN, has repeatedly accused Iran of supplying the Huthis. Last year, she displayed the remnants of missiles that the Huthi rebels fired at Saudi Arabia, which is backing the Yemeni government in the civil war, saying they provided "undeniable evidence" that Iran was illegally supplying weapons to its Yemeni allies.