Defected soldiers sit on a Ratel armoured personnel carrier on a street in Sanaa, Yemen, chewing qat, a mild stimulant, earlier this week. The DA wants to know how the South African vehicles reached the strife-torn country. Picture: REUTERS

CAPE TOWN - South African- manufactured Ratel armoured infantry carriers have been photographed in strife-torn Yemen, leading the Democratic Alliance (DA) to call for an investigation by the National Conventional Arms Control Committee (NCACC).

The Ratels were apparently being operated in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, by soldiers who had defected to protesters demanding the end of President Ali Abdullah Saleh's rule.

The presence of the vehicles either means SA authorised their export or that another country sold Ratels to Yemen, which would constitution a violation of the end- user certificate.

South African law forbids the export of arms to violators of human rights, including countries involved in regional conflicts and those subject to a United Nations embargo. Details of arms exports are a closely guarded secret, overseen by the committee, which reports to Parliament.

DA defence spokesman David Maynier said in a statement yesterday that NCACC chairman Jeff Radebe should launch an investigation into how the converted Ratels, previously operated by the South African National Defence Force, had found their way to Yemen.

"Over 100 pictures of demonstrations in Yemen were recently published by Reuters and the Associated Press. The series includes a number of pictures of a converted Ratel infantry vehicle in Yemen," Mr Maynier said.

"The NCACC's latest annual report records that R373,8m worth of conventional arms were sold to Yemen in 2010. Conventional arms exports to Yemen last year included R239,4m worth of Category A conventional weapons, which are described as major conventional implements of war that could cause heavy personnel casualties."

Mr Maynier was ejected from the National Assembly in March when he questioned whether SA had supplied sniper rifles to Libya and asked Mr Radebe how it felt to have "blood on his hands".

Mr Maynier yesterday there was no evidence suggesting Ratels were exported directly to Yemen, but some were reportedly sold to Jordan.

He said: "The Paramount Group, in co-operation with the King Abdullah Design and Development Bureau (KADDB), produced a converted version of the Ratel infantry vehicle in Jordan; and the infantry vehicle depicted in the photos appears to be the converted version of the Ratel infantry vehicle produced by the Paramount Group and KADDB in Jordan.

"We cannot sit back and allow conventional weapons manufactured in our country to end up in the hands of repressive regimes such as Yemen."

Mr Radebe is to appear before the joint standing committee on defence this morning, where he will have to field questions about the Ratel. Attempts to get comment on the vehicles yesterday were unsuccessful.

Defence specialist and local correspondent for Janes Defence Weekly, Helmoed Heitman, said he knew of no direct exports of Ratels to Yemen.

He stressed that the vehicles photographed were relatively benign because they did not have a turret with a large gun . However, the troops inside might not be benign.

He said if the vehicles were on loan or had been bought from Jordan, this did not necessarily mean the end-user certificate had been infringed - "it depends what the certificate said and whether it allowed re-export".

The NCACC annual report in April showed significant military hardware sales to North Africa and the Middle East. Last year R68,9m worth of conventional arms were exported to Libya, R7,7m to Syria and R373,8m to Yemen. This included Category A weapons such as explosives, large-calibre arms and automatic weapons, guns, missiles, bombs, grenades and tanks.

The report also showed weapons transfers to repressive or unstable countries such as Algeria, Colombia, Egypt and Equatorial Guinea.

hartleyw@bdfm.co.za