Dubai police have seized 16,000 Turkish-made pistols hidden in a sea cargo shipment bound for Yemen, officials said Thursday.
Authorities said the guns were headed to Yemen's restive Saada region, where Shiite rebels have fought government forces for years. Dubai's government described the find as the largest arms shipment of its kind discovered in the region.
Lt. Gen. Dahi Khalfan Tamim, Dubai's police chief, said authorities found the weapons in a red cargo shipping container, hidden behind boxes of furniture wrapped in plastic in a Dubai warehouse about two weeks ago.
Police showed photos and a video of thousands of metallic black, silver and gold colored handguns laid out on a concrete parking lot.
It was unclear who ordered the shipment. Tamim told reporters it was unlikely the weapons were destined for the Yemeni government because they were counterfeit knockoffs of legitimate brands.
He speculated that they might have been bound for Hawthi rebels, a group of Shiite tribesmen that has waged an on-and-off struggle against the government for the last six years.
They also could have been ordered by middlemen who planned to sell them one by one, he said. The central government in the capital Sanaa is struggling to exert its authority over Yemen's remote provinces, providing fertile ground for smugglers, al-Qaida militants and other criminals to operate.
Tamim said Yemen had a market for illegal firearms. "If you want to sell it, people will buy," he said.
The shipment originated in Turkey and passed through an Egyptian port before reaching Dubai's Jebel Ali port, police said. The smugglers had intended to transport the weapons through another Gulf country instead of Dubai but changed their plans to secure a more convenient shipping route, police said.
Tamim declined to name the other Gulf country meant to serve as a transport point but said it wasn't Saudi Arabia. He said a number of suspects have been arrested with help from the countries involved.
Jebel Ali is by far the busiest port in the Middle East. It and other Dubai docks serve as major transshipment hubs for cargo traveling between Asia, Europe, Africa and the rest of the Middle East.
Yemen has been embroiled in a month of protests seeking to oust President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has ruled for 32 years. A government crackdown on the opposition has killed dozens.
Saleh has been under American pressure to curb weapons trafficking in Yemen, where al-Qaida is known to operate.
Emirati authorities last year intercepted one of two mail bombs sent from Yemen to the U.S. in a cargo shipment transiting through Dubai. The other was discovered in Britain.