Canadian-made weapons may have fallen into the hands of Houthi fighters in Yemen's civil war, raising new concerns about Canada's arms exports to Saudi Arabia.
The rifles were most likely seized from Saudi forces, and it appears to have happened more than once, according to Armament Research Services, an international intelligence consultancy that traces arms.
The weapons first appeared in photos and video featured on a Houthi-linked TV channel and social media, showcased as "modern weapons" captured in battle with "Saudi border guards." It seemed a coup for a group that's been under a UN arms embargo for the past year.
Experts at ARES investigated the photos and concluded they almost certainly show an LRT-3 sniper rifle made by Winnipeg-based PGW Defence Technologies.
Several other Canadian and international experts consulted by CBC News agree.
"They're so distinctive visually that there aren't many rifles that look like them," ARES director Nic Jenzen-Jones said of the LRT-3, a .50 calibre sniper rifle with a potential range of nearly two kilometres.
Asked by the CBC to comment, the manufacturer declined to confirm that, saying only that all its exports follow Canadian export rules.
Another photo and a brief video also show the suspected LRT-3 next to what is believed to be a PGW Timberwolf sniper rifle, among other weapons, lying at the feet of three Houthi fighters with fists in the air.
"There are a couple of paths the weapon could have followed, but for us the most likely is that it was captured, from Saudi land forces," says Jenzen-Jones.
The weapons in question were most likely exported legally to Saudi Arabia. One of a few indications: on a media tour last year, Saudi soldiers were photographed on Yemen's border carrying a rifle that weapons experts believe is a PGW Timberwolf.
The apparent presence of such rifles in Yemen's battlefields, and how they got there, raises difficult questions for the Canadian government.
For one, the weapons may be pressed into service in a civil war that has killed some 3,000 civilians, destroyed infrastructure, displaced 2.5 million people and left an already acutely poor nation on the verge of widespread famine.
"To have evidence of even one or two [weapons] is an indicator. It's like an iceberg: there's a visible part but there's far more below the surface," said Kenneth Epps, a policy advisor at Project Ploughshares, an anti-conflict organization which tracks weapons sales and exports.
"Canadians should be worried about [it]," Epps says. "Even if it's just one case, it suggests that there possibly could be many more."
According to a CBC News analysis, over the past decade Canada has shipped more than $28 million worth of Canadian-made guns and rifles to Saudi Arabia — this country's second largest weapons customer after the U.S.
Company won't confirm what products they sell to Saudis
PGW Defence Technologies lists the Royal Saudi Land Forces as a client on its website but would not confirm precisely what products they buy. Manuals on the site are available in English and Arabic.
Company owner Ross Spagrud declined an interview, saying only, "All our exports are undertaken via the authority of export permits which are issued by the Government of Canada."
The PGW story
- The PGW sniper rifle is manufactured in a nondescript strip mall in Winnipeg. Along with the Royal Saudi Land Force, the company lists UAE Armed Forces, the U.S. Marines and the Canadian Armed Forces among its clients.
- PGW signed a $4.5-million dollar contract with Canada's Department of Defence for sniper rifles, training, ammunition, spare parts and maintenance support in 2005. From 2007 to 2014, DND paid PGW nearly $1 million, according to contract data compiled by SRC's investigative journalism program Enquete.
- A 2003 business name change hinted at the direction the company was taking. Prairie Gun Works, established in 1992, became PGW Defence Technology Inc .and soon after that came the major military sale of rifles to arm Canadian snipers.
According to federal government guidelines, Ottawa "closely controls" weapons exports to countries that pose a threat to Canada, are involved in hostilities, are under UN sanctions or have governments that violate the human rights of their citizens, unless it can be shown the weapons won't be used against civilians.
Human rights groups believe sales to Saudi should be banned because of a questionable human rights record, and due to its increasing willingness to flex its military muscle in the region.
Saudi is playing a significant role in Yemen's war, leading a coalition to back its internationally recognized president. The Iran-backed Houthi fighters are allied with former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.
The Saudi-led airstrikes against the Houthi in Yemen, bolstered by U.S. and U.K. armament, have been called into question by a UN report and several human rights organizations. They accuse Saudi of indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas and infrastructure, in violation of international law.
Amnesty International says while both sides have likely committed war crimes, half of the civilian casualties were by the Saudi-led coalition strikes.
Saudi Arabia is also losing track of weapons which it drops to its allies on the ground, only to have them captured by Houthi fighters.
The risks — in a battlefield that could also see those weapons fall into the hands of al-Qaeda or the black market — should concern to Canadians, says Amnesty.
"What that tells us is Canadian arms, like potentially other arms, because proper controls aren't being put on them, because proper risk assessments aren't happening by certain players in the chain, these are potentially being used to commit really significant violations and really lead to real human suffering," says James Lynch, Amnesty's Middle East and North Africa deputy director.
It is why he says Canada and other countries accustomed to exporting weapons to Saudi should suspend such sales until the risks have subsided.
"For many Western governments, selling weapons to the Gulf states was very convenient because they would place large orders … but [the weapons] actually wouldn't be used in conflict or repression.
"That picture has changed."
The Canadian government says it has no information on Canadian weapons being used in Yemen.
"Export permits are only approved if they are consistent with Canada's foreign and defence policies — including human rights," Alex Lawrence, press secretary for the International Trade Minister, wrote in an email.
A receiving government, she added, must confirm it "accepts responsibility to ensure that the items … will not be diverted to uses other than those stated in the application."
Epps, of Project Ploughshares, says that's not enough.
"I think there is an obligation on the part of the Canadian government, once they authorize arms transfers, to make sure that they don't get diverted into the wrong hands."
Diana Khaddaj, a spokeswoman for Global Affairs Canada, later said that if Ottawa becomes aware of exports being used by someone other than the authorized end-user, "we do work with exporters to ensure that appropriate measures are immediately taken to prevent a recurrence."
Global Affairs Canada issued a statement Monday saying Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion would not be available for an interview on the subject.
Attempts to reach the Saudi Ministry of Defence, or to get comment from Saudi officials at the embassy in Ottawa or Washington were unsuccessful.
The photos initially appeared on Twitter and in a local Houthi-linked newspaper that suggested the weapons were captured in a border battle on or around June 11, 2015.
What appear to be portions of the operation have been captured by a Houthi "combat camera" that provides footage to their TV channel, al-Maseera.
Hussain Al-Bukhaiti, a Houthi-linked local journalist who received the photos from a source and tweeted them shortly after the battle, said it occurred in the hills south of the Jizan region in Saudi Arabia.
Al-Bukhaiti identified the man holding the LRT-3 in one of the photos as a Houthi fighter who operates in the region.
"Most of the effective weapons against the Saudi is the sniper rifle, more than any weapon that the Houthi used," he said in an interview from Sana'a.
"If you want to go inside the border, then the most effective weapons are the light weapons."
Such modern weapons, he says, "normally we don't have it in Yemen; we might have a similar type of Russian-made snipers or like those, like AK-47, but of course those, they are not as effective as Western weapons."