Investigation: Finnish-made Patrias, some with Russian heavy weapons, deployed in Yemen battle zone

An investigation by News Now Finland has uncovered the first video evidence that Patria vehicles used by Emirati forces, some fitted with Russian heavy weapons, have been deployed to western Yemen where much of the fiercest fighting has taken place in recent months.

Still image from Sky News Arabia report showing Finnish-made Patria vehicle in Yemen, 12th August 2018 / Credit: Sky News Arabia

Finnish-made Patria vehicles fitted with Russian weapons have been deployed to parts of Yemen where the United Nations says scores of civilians have been killed in the ongoing war.

Despite warnings from aid agencies and the UN for more than a year that the Yemen war had created the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, Finnish ministries twice approved the export of spare parts for Patria vehicles during 2018, in January and July, even as civilian casualties mounted.

An investigation by News Now Finland has uncovered the first video evidence that Patria vehicles used by Emirati forces, some fitted with heavy weapons, have been deployed to western Yemen where much of the fiercest fighting has taken place in recent months.

Hodeidah, Red Sea coast, June 2018 / Credit: Ralph Elhage, International Committee of the Red Cross

Battle for Hudaydah

On Yemen’s Red Sea coast, the port of Hudaydah plays a critical role in bringing in supplies of food for the estimated 22 million Yemenis in need of humanitarian assistance.  

Hudaydah has been in the hands of Houthi rebel fighters since the end of 2014, and gaining control of the city is a key priority for Yemen government forces and the Saudi-led coalition propping them up.

In June, Coalition forces launched a new effort to take back the city but stopped short of a full blown ground invasion. Airstrikes damaged water plants and hospitals, and sporadic outbreaks of cholera stalked the residents who hadn’t already fled. The UN’s Humanitarian Coordinator in Yemen Lisa Grande said in July that Hudaydah was just “one airstrike away from an unstoppable epidemic”.

After a brief ceasefire in July, Saudi and Emirati forces pushed ahead with another offensive just a few weeks later.

A Sky News Arabia correspondent stands by the side of the road as an Emerati military convoy passes, 12th August 2018 / Credit: Sky News Arabia

Military column heads towards front lines

On Sunday 12th August, a Sky News Arabia crew stood by the side of a desert road waiting for a military convoy to pass.

Despite temperatures that can routinely top +36°C at that time of year, the reporter wore  body armour and a helmet. The story aired on the pan-Arab news channel, which is headquartered in Abu Dhabi, and co-owned by Britain’s Sky News and a member of the Emerati royal family.

The television crew’s location has all the hallmarks of a military media operation, the sort of facility that any journalist who’s covered the Middle East in the last few decades will recognise. Reporters are routinely taken somewhere the military thinks will look good on television, which often involves vehicles or troops in action.

The Sky News Arabia crew probably didn’t have to wait long before the convoy came into focus, and they even managed to put a drone camera up to get aerial shots.  

As the convoy drives towards the reporter, the video shows a column of Emerati military vehicles, sourced from at least five different countries, driving through a small checkpoint with a Yemen flag. 

In the lead is what looks like an Oshkosh Light All Terrain Vehicle, likely armed with a Russian-built Kornet anti-tank missile system.

Next come three French-built Leclerc main battle tanks. The United Arab Emirates is the only export customer.

Then, an American-built mine-resistant MRAP; followed by two South African-built G6 Rhino vehicles armed with 155mm self propelled Howitzers. There’s also a British-built MRAP variant known as a Caiman which seems to be in use as a medical truck.

A lighter-armed Patria AMV deployed in Yemen, 12th August 2018 / Credit: Sky News Arabia

But it’s the first clear video of Finnish-made Patria AMVs – armoured modular vehicles – that will raise eyebrows in Helsinki.

Previously, only one still picture had emerged of a Patria in the area. It showed a light weapons configuration, and no information to say where exactly it was deployed.

News Now Finland’s investigation found two separate pieces of video from different news sources showing the Patria convoy heading towards Hudaydah in what the official Emirates news service calls a “surprise attack”.

One of the AMVs in the 12th August convoy is relatively lightly armed. It has a remote weapons station bolted on top, made locally by Abu Dhabi defence company IGG.

The other Patria AMV is much more deadly, and there are clear overhead shots on the Sky News Arabia video which shows the distinctive split rear door with a window on the right hand side as well as the weapons platform.       

The turret on this Patria is the same type made for Russian BMP-3 Infantry Fighting Vehicles. The main 100mm gun is not classed as an anti-tank weapon, but it is the heavest weapon mounted on any armoured personnel carrier of various militaries which use this type of vehicle. Next to it, a 30mm auto cannon is the secondary weapon. The two barrels are situated close together, unique for this Russian turret configuration, which makes it easy to identify.

A military expert who asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the subject says it’s unlikely that modifications to the Finnish AMVs to mount such a heavy weapons platform would have happened without at least approval from Patria; or more likely, design changes to accommodate the Russian weapons were done during manufacturing, before export.

“In the discussion around the exports of military vehicles a clear argument has been that they are exported un-armed” says Kari Paasonen, a researcher with the SaferGlobe Peace and Security Think Tank in Helsinki.

“As we can see here, the buyer can arm the vehicles if it wishes and use it in the places it wants. Finland has no real means to influence this after export” he adds.

A second news video shows the same convoy on a different part of the road heading to Hudaydah / Credit: Emirates News Agency

Second news report shows convoy

At another point on the road to Hudaydah, a second news crew shoots video of the same Patria battle convoy.

The Emirates News Agency edits the convoy video with shots of fighters in commercial trucks, and the accompanying story says that this “surprise military offensive” resulted in “cutting off the key supply routes” and inflicted heavy casualties on the Houthi militias.

The configuration of the convoy, with little capacity to carry troops, suggests they weren’t trying to take and hold any ground. It’s an iron fist that could easily level a village.

In August, 55 civilians were killed and 170 wounded in a series of explosions in Hudaydah.

“The scenes coming from Hodeida are horrific. The disregard of international humanitarian law in Yemen cannot be tolerated” said the ICRC’s Yemen head Johannes Bruwer after the attack.

“While the exact circumstances around the ground explosions are still unknown, this lack of respect for civilian life and civilian property is reprehensible” he added.

This weekend 32 Houthi fighters were reported killed in fierce fighting around Hudaydah; while an airstrike killed four people at a radio station in the city.

Ministries, Patria, pass the buck

Responsibility for licenses to export military hardware rests with the Ministry of Defence, but the Ministry of Foreign Affairs gives their input as well.

“The issuance of the license was based on Finnish legislation and on an overall assessment” the Ministry of Defence tells News Now Finland in a statement.

The MoD says it consulted the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as required, but there were no objections to selling the latest batch of spare parts to the Emiratis.

Patria also leans on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, saying it relies on them to give advice about the situation in the region. 

The ministry, says Patria spokesperson Birgitta Selonen, “has the best knowledge and prerequisites to evaluate situations in different countries”.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs says they’ve “expressed concern regarding export of defence materiel to parties involved in the conflict in Yemen” since 2016, leading to negative decisions on some new applications.

Those concerns however weren’t strong enough to cancel the most recent order for Patria spare parts, despite clear evidence from the United Nations and Red Cross that Emirati forces were a de facto occupying power in southern Yemen, responsibile for human rights abuses and breaches of international law; that there had been repeated and large-scale loss of civilian life; and there was an ongoing dire humanitarian situation affecting millions of Yemenis.

In July, the UAE military received its shipment of Patria spare parts to keep the AMVs on the road.

“We are of the view that denying licenses for spare parts would have put Patria in an unfavourable situation” says Ilkka Rentola, Deputy Director in the Unit for Arms Control at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Although both the ministries and Patria stress that decisions on exporting military hardware and know-how are made in line with Finnish law and international arms control treaties, and keeping the export policies of other countries in mind, some partners are having second thoughts.

Germany, Norway and Spain are among the European countries who have recently taken steps to cancel military sales to Coalition countries involved in the Yemen war.

“Another argument to defend arms exports from Finland to countries warring in Yemen has been that Finnish arms have not been used in war zones” says SaferGlobe’s Kari Paasonen.

“In October 2017 Minister of Defence Jussi Niinistö said in parliament that ‘no products of the Finnish defence industry have been used in the Yemen war, let alone in human rights violations when we talk about the Middle East’. This shows again that Finnish arms are not immune to getting used in war” says Paasonen.

A child in the Yemen capital Sana’a carried water provided by relief agencies / Credit: ICRC

Finland’s dual role

As well as selling military hardware and spare parts to countries involved in an active, brutal conflict, Finland plays another role in the Yemen war.

Through official channels Finland has given millions of euros in humanitarian aid to help the estimated 8.5 million people facing starvation, in critical need of help.  

“I saw so many malnourished children. Every room you go into in a pediatric unit there is some child being treated for malnutrition” says Marcia Biggs, a foreign correspondent who spent several weeks in Yemen this spring reporting for America’s PBS News.

“These children would come in and be treated for severe acute malnutrition, but the pediatric nurses would treat them, and send them back to informal camps where they’re certain to not get enough food to survive. On an individual level band aids are being put on the wound, but every time these children go out they face the onslought of starvation” she says.

In the past 18 months Finland has given at least €5m through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to relief efforts in Yemen.

“It’s hypocritical, and this is a message that I have conveyed to every single member of the government” says Frank Johansson, Director of Amnesty International in Finland.

“Our position is that no country should sell materiel to countries involved in war in Yemen. Even if it’s not offensive weapons, it assists them in their war efforts”.