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saudi arms deal

A Saudi Arabia flag is seen flying on Parliament Hill Nov. 2 in Ottawa.Dave Chan

The Trudeau government has reached out to Saudi Arabia and Western allies to register unease over Riyadh's apparent use of Canadian armoured vehicles against its own citizens, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland says.

"We've expressed our concerns ... to the kingdom of Saudi Arabia," the Minister said Monday during a teleconference.

Prompted by a report from The Globe and Mail, Canada is in the middle of an investigation into videos and photos emerging from Saudi Arabia that show armoured vehicles made by Terradyne Armored Vehicles of Newmarket, Ont., being deployed in a conflict between Saudi forces and Shia militants in the Mid-East kingdom's Eastern Province.

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Ms. Freeland has raised the incident with the European Union's top diplomat, Federica Mogherini. Ms. Freeland said she broached the subject with the EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy during meetings in Manila this past weekend.

"I shared with her Canada's concerns and Canada's investigation of this matter because I know that some European member states and the European Parliament have been concerned as well."

The Saudi government does not respond well to outside questions about its internal behaviour. Any effort by Canadian officials to query Riyadh over the Terradyne incident or raise it publicly with European allies could strain ties. Last year the Saudi embassy rebuffed coverage of its human rights conduct by saying it "does not accept any interference in its jurisdiction or internal affairs by any party."

European Union lawmakers have raised major concerns about selling arms to Saudi Arabia in the past two years, particularly because Riyadh has been waging a bloody intervention in neighbouring Yemen where it has been accused of violating international humanitarian law by bombing and killing civilians. The 28-member EU's Parliament passed a motion urging countries not to sell weapons to the Saudis. As well the Swedish government is preparing legislation that would curb arms sales to autocratic or non-democratic regimes like Saudi Arabia, despite the objections of major defence contractors such as Saab Group.

While Canadian political debate over the past 18 months has focused on a $15-billion deal to supply Riyadh with weaponized armoured vehicles produced at General Dynamics Corp.'s London, Ont., plant, other unrelated Canadian companies such as Terradyne have been making their own combat machine sales to the Saudis.

Ms. Freeland declined to say whether Terradyne was granted export permits for the armoured vehicles it sold to Saudi Arabia, citing commercial confidentiality. She said Canada expects any end user of Canadian military equipment will "abide by the terms of our export permits," a phrase that suggests Ottawa had obtained assurances from Riyadh the machines would not be used to suppress civilians.

NDP foreign affairs critic Hélène Laverdière said the Trudeau government has trusted Saudi Arabia for too long. "I am wondering where the Trudeau government was over one year ago when people raised concerns over armoured vehicle sales to Saudi Arabia," she said.

"Expecting the end user to behave is not sufficient, especially in this case where we are talking about a country that is firing on its own citizens and where we have strong evidence of [its] war crimes in a neighbouring country."

The Trudeau government moved quickly in late July, following a report from The Globe and Mail, to launch a probe into what appear to be Canadian-made Terradyne vehicles, which feature amour plating and gun turrets, attacking Shia militants in Eastern Province. Even now, 10 days later, new videos of Terradyne machines participating in the attacks are still being circulated by Saudi dissidents.

In recent weeks, a fight between the Sunni-dominated regime and minority Shia dissidents in the country's Eastern Province has grown more violent with heavy crackdowns by the Riyadh regime. Reuters reported that at least five people were killed over two days as security forces begin an operation to flush out suspected Shia militants from the town of al-Awamiya in the al-Qatif region.

The Saudis have brought in more weaponry to bolster their tactical forces, and videos and photos circulated by Shia activists on the Internet show what military equipment experts identified as armoured vehicles produced by Terradyne.

We're deeply concerned about it and we're looking into it to determine the facts carefully, very actively and energetically. And we will respond accordingly," Ms. Freeland said Monday.

The House of Saud's use of combat machines against its Shia population in the eastern part of the country goes to the very heart of the controversy over whether the Trudeau government is violating Canada's weapons export-control rules, particularly with the $15-billion sale of General Dynamics armoured vehicles to Riyadh for which the Liberals approved export permits in 2016.

These rules call for restrictions on arms exports to countries with a "persistent record of serious violations of the human rights of their citizens." Shipments are supposed to be blocked if there is a real risk the buyer could turn arms against its own population.

Conservative foreign affairs critic Peter Kent urged Ms. Freeland to act quickly. "What has the government learned, if anything, from reaching out [to the Saudis]? How long will it take to determine the facts, make a decision and share it with Canadians?"