MADRID -- A Saudi cargo ship that Spanish arms control groups suspect is carrying European weapons for possible use in Yemen left the port of Santander on Monday and sailed for Genoa, Italy.
The Bahri Yanbu left the northern Spanish port after loading two containers, Alberto Estevez, of the Control Arms Coalition of human rights and aid groups which is trying to stop arms reaching conflict zones, told The Associated Press.
A Spanish government spokesman said the ship took on cargo contracted from private companies that he said wasn't illegal nor contravened any international laws.
A company called Instalaza, from Zaragoza, sent weaponry for a trade exhibition in the United Arab Emirates and it will be returned to Spain, while another company sent ceremonial cannon to Saudi Arabia, the spokesman told the AP.
He spoke on condition of anonymity, in accordance with government rules.
Countries are under pressure not to send arms to Saudi Arabia, amid concerns they are being used against civilians in Yemen where thousands have died since the conflict began in 2014.
In Yemen's civil war, the Iran-backed Houthis have been fighting a Saudi-led military coalition backing Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi's forces. The fighting in the Arab world's poorest country has also left millions at risk from food and medical care shortages and pushed the country to the brink of famine.
The Bahri Yanbu, which has been making its way around European ports apparently to pick up weaponry, arrived in Santander from France on Friday.
French Defense Minister Florence Parly confirmed that the ship was meant to pick up French weapons in Le Havre as part of a contract signed with Saudi Arabia several years ago.
However, after French activists held a protest and sought emergency legal measures to try to stop the weapons supplies, the ship didn't pick up any arms in Le Havre after all, according to a French defense official. The official, who was not authorized to be publicly named, in accordance with French government policy, would not comment on why or give any further details.
Amnesty International suspects that, before sailing to France, the ship took on Belgian-made ammunition in Antwerp.
Activists provided a Belgian Customs document, dated May 7, to the AP that indicated arms were placed on board the Bahri Yanbu at Antwerp.
Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders last week acknowledged concerns about the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia given concerns over their potential use but that such a decision lies with regional governments in the country under Belgium's constitution.
"I think it would be good to suspend arms delivery contracts to Saudi Arabia," he told Belgian state broadcaster RTBF.
Ara Marcen Naval, Amnesty International's Deputy Director for Arms Control and Human Rights, said the Bahri Yanbu was a "serious test" of the European Union's commitment to halt conflicts.
"No EU state should be making the deadly decision to authorize the transfer or transit of arms to a conflict where there is a clear risk they will be used in war crimes and other serious violations of international law," Naval said.
Barry Hatton reported from Lisbon, Portugal. Angela Charlton from Paris and Lorne Cook in Brussels contributed to this report.