US Navy destroyer intercepts weapons cache off Somali coast


Chad Garland

Stars and Stripes

A joint U.S. maritime patrol seized thousands of AK-47 rifles, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and other illicit weapons and components from two boats off the coast of Somalia.

Members of the Navy, Army and Coast Guard aboard the destroyer USS Winston S. Churchill conducted the two-day operation in international waters last week, the Navy said in a statement.

A Navy boarding party and a Coast Guard Advanced Interdiction Team discovered the illicit cargo after boarding the vessels in the Indian Ocean to verify their flags, which is a routine maritime law enforcement action.

“We are proud to have a positive impact on the safety and security of coalition forces,” Lt. Travis Dopp, the Coast Guard team’s assistant leader, said in the Navy statement.

The Army personnel that participated were from a civil affairs unit, Cmdr. Rebecca Rebarich, a Navy 5th Fleet spokeswoman, told Stars and Stripes in an email Wednesday.

The military has not yet identified the source of the weapons cache seized last Thursday and Friday, which Rebarich said included 12.7mm sniper rifles, and hundreds of PKM light machine guns and DShK crew-served heavy machine guns, in addition to the AK-47s and RPGs. It also included barrels, stocks and optical scopes.

The Churchill had located the dhows, which are a type of trading vessel used in the area, and provided overwatch and security for the boarding teams throughout the 40-hour operation.

The crews of the dhows were given food and water before being released, the Navy’s Bahrain-based 5th Fleet said in a statement this week.

Homeported in Norfolk, Va., Churchill got underway in early August on a scheduled deployment. It’s been patrolling and participating in exercises in the Central Command area since a few weeks after that.

The CENTCOM area spans 2.5 million square miles of water from the Pacific Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea, including the Persian Gulf, Red Sea and three critical choke points at the Strait of Hormuz, Suez Canal and Strait of Bab al Mandeb.

The Navy routinely patrols these areas to ensure the free flow of commerce and disrupt illicit trafficking.

“These operations prevent nefarious actors from illegally spreading their lethal aid,” said Cmdr. Timothy Shanley, Churchill’s commanding officer.

The arms aboard the dhows mirrored other shipments interdicted by the U.S. and allied forces that later were found to be heading to Yemen, where Iranian-backed Houthi rebels have been battling a Saudi-led military coalition for control of the country since 2015, The Associated Press reported.

“The unique blend of material is consistent with multiple interdictions over the years that have been definitively linked back to Iran,” Tim Michetti, an expert on illicit weapons flows, said regarding the latest seizure in the AP report.

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