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North Yemen

By Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / January 13, 1983

Souk at-Taal, North Yemen

Five days a week there is little here except a few buildings and the desert. But on Fridays and Saturdays this place is transformed into an Arabian shoppers' paradise as caravans of Mercedes lorries and Toyota pickup trucks park hubcap to hubcap to display their goods.

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This market is said to be the largest and cheapest one in North Yemen, and almost everything sold here - from blankets to grain to gasoline - has been smuggled into the country. Most of it has come across the border from Saudi Arabia.

In the center of the market a cluster of special merchants spread their wares on tarpaulins for browsers to inspect. The selection, which is diverse each week , can be of Chinese, Russian, American, British, Polish, North Korean, Belgian, Italian, or Czech origin. But it's always the same basic item - guns.

Some are antiques, of a sort, preserved over the years since the Turks of the Ottoman Empire first introduced large quantities of firearms into the region. Other nations followed, notably Italy and Britain, whose weapons spread through remote regions of Arabia faster than the political influence they hoped to gain by distributing them.

But the major influx of weapons has come since the 1962 Egyptian-backed coup that unseated the ruling imam and triggered a bloody civil war here. The eight years of fighting were fueled to an extent by Soviet arms funneled through Egyptian troops in Yemen to those fighting to establish a republic. On the other side, Saudi Arabia was supplying the tribesmen in the north who were fighting to reestablish the authority of the imam.

More recently, guns entered and spread through the countryside during the on-again, off-again border fighting in the late l970s between South Yemen-backed guerrillas and North Yemen government forces. During those battles (which intensified into a full-scale invasion in 1979), local tribesmen were recruited and armed - some by the government, some by the guerrillas, some by both.

Some arms continue to come across the Saudi border, but most travel other routes; by dhow from Djibouti to small coastal towns along the Red Sea, through the wide-open eastern desert from South Yemen, and by truck from other Arab states. Those that come by truck are hidden under false floors or in special welded compartments in the chassis.

A fleet of such trucks carrying concealed Soviet-designed Kalashnikov automatic rifles was discovered in the United Arab Emirates in November. The drivers said they were bound for North Yemen and had come from Syria.

Gunrunning and selling in this region are a tradition, established over the years by enterprising merchants - often with tribal ties - who are more interested in earning profits than in undermining the central government or the Saudi regime to the north.

That is not to say the established routes and the merchants have not been used by communist gunrunners working from Aden or subversive elements backed by Libya and Syria. These links are known to have existed, and most likely still do , but most observers here say the presence of so many guns is not in and of itself destabilizing, considering the character of North Yemen and of the Yemenis.

Both the Saudis and South Yemeni-supported guerrillas have, on occasion, supplied the northern tribes with guns and other weapons in attempts to buy allegiance. But in this regard, most Saudi support comes as cash.

Such attempts to buy the tribes have proved fruitless. Historically each tribe has acted in what it perceives as its self-interest regardless of ideologies or previous alliances. During the civil war in the 1960s some tribes were accused of fighting by day for the republicans and by night for the royalists, while accepting money and arms from both sides. Such tactics continue.

One tribe-watcher described the system as ''a state of mutually organized anarchy.''

It is a system that, historically, has effectively resisted subversion and control, and that continues to do so.

''The supplies were probably originally for political purposes - 'We'll give you weapons and then you must be well related to us and so on' - but the Yemeni as a whole is very independent minded. He'll take the weapons and he'll get as many as he can, and then for his economic purposes he'll sell some,'' says a well-informed observer in Sana.

Such deals have gone on for years. There are said today to be at least two guns for every resident in this country of 6 million.

''This has been Yemen's business for the last 60 years. It is a trade like any item you trade,'' Prime Minister Abdul Karim Al-Iryani told the Monitor.