OSLO (Reuters) - Norway has suspended exports of weapons and ammunition to the United Arab Emirates over concerns they could be used in the war in Yemen, the Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday.
The UAE is part of a Saudi-led coalition formed in 2015 to fight the Iran-aligned Houthi group that controls most of northern Yemen and the capital Sanaa, in a war that has killed more than 10,000 people and displaced more than 3 million.
While there is no evidence that Norwegian-made ammunition has been used in Yemen, there was a rising risk related to the UAE's military involvement there, the ministry said.
"The decision reflects the strict precautionary approach taken by Norway," it added.
Existing export permits had been temporarily revoked and no new licences would be issued under the current circumstances. The decision was made on Dec. 19, but was not made public until Wednesday.
In 2016, Norwegian exports of weapons and ammunition to the UAE rose to 79 million Norwegian crowns ($9.7 million) from 41 million in 2015, Statistics Norway data showed.
Human rights groups and several members of Norway's parliament have for months campaigned for a halt in arms exports to the UAE.
"It is fantastic that the government finally has taken responsibility to end weapons exports to a country which is active in the bombing of schools and hospitals in Yemen," said Line Hegna, a spokeswoman for the Norwegian branch of charity Save the Children.
"Furthermore, we are hopeful that the decision taken by the Norwegian government can act as an example for other exporting nations to act responsibly in the face of repeated violations of international humanitarian law," she added.
Norwegian newspaper Verdens Gang on Tuesday published what it said was video footage of a small remote-operated submarine captured by Houthi rebels and produced by Norwegian defence contractor Kongsberg Gruppen (KOG.OL).
"This submarine has been seized in Yemeni waters and it belongs to the Saudi-American enemy," a voice in the video said. Reuters was not able to verify the authenticity of the footage. Kongsberg Gruppen, which is 50 percent owned by the Norwegian government, declined to comment on the Verdens Gang story, while the foreign ministry said it had no knowledge of the vessel's origins.
The Houthi news agency al-Masirah published similar video footage on Jan. 1 which it said showed the capture of a military reconnaissance submersible device by their naval frogmen. It did not specify the origin of the device or refer to Norway in its report.
The sale of arms to Saudi Arabia and other coalition members has also stirred debate in other European countries, including Britain. Last July, London's High Court rejected a claim by campaigners that billions of dollars' worth of arms sales to Saudi Arabia should be halted because they were being used in Yemen in violation of international humanitarian law.
The Department for International Trade said on Wednesday that the British government "operates one of the most robust arms export control regimes in the world".
"We rigorously examine every application, including those from the UAE, on a case-by-case basis against the Consolidated EU and National Arms Export Licensing Criteria. We will not grant a licence if to do so would be inconsistent with these criteria," a spokesperson said.
The opposition Labour party, however, said it would continue to call for the suspension of all British arms sales to Saudi Arabia "until there is evidence of a complete halt to the use of British weapons against any civilian population".
While weapons exports to the UAE have been allowed since 2010, Norway does not permit sale of arms or ammunition to Saudi Arabia.
The Norwegian parliament's foreign relations committee is due to debate the country's arms sales later this month.
UAE officials were not immediately available for comment.
($1 = 8.1228 Norwegian crowns)
(Reporting by Terje Solsvik; Additional reporting by Henrik Stolen in Oslo, William James in London and Sami Aboudi and Noah Browing in Dubai; Editing by Catherine Evans and Robin Pomeroy)