Conflict Europe Middle East

Exclusive: Italy sends more RWM bombs to Saudi Arabia

Using community-sourced social content and the live plane tracking service,, followed a cargo of bombs aboard a Boeing 747 as it was flown from a civilian airport in Sardinia in Italy to a military base in Saudi Arabia. Italy’s approval of the shipment arguably contravenes the Arms Trade Treaty.

On Thursday, Oct. 29, several eyewitnesses and local media on the Italian island of Sardinia photographed dozens of bombs on the runway at Cagliari airport. Guarded by Italian police, the bombs were loaded aboard a Boeing 747 cargo plane.

Evidence suggests the bombs were made at the nearby manufacturing facility of RWM Italia, a munitions company that has shipped thousands of bombs to Saudi Arabia and other armed forces bombing Yemen, as revealed in this investigation by in June. This reporter has seen documentary evidence of bombs with RWM Italia manufacturing codes on the ground in Yemen.

Local journalist Michele Ruffi sent us the video above of the airplane and the cargo. We independently verified this by matching geo-located Instagram photos taken Thursday, pinpointing the plane on the runway.

Separately, Sardinian politician Roberto Cotti tweeted this photo of the cargo, allowing us to identify it as MK80-series bombs manufactured and exported by RWM Italia in contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars since 2011.

The Boeing 747 is operated by Silk Way Airlines, an Azerbaijan cargo company. Historic flight records shows the plane travelling regularly between Baku and Dubai, Frankfurt, Kiev and Zhengzhou in China. Ian Petchenik at helped us to locate the plane’s signal on the tarmac in Sardinia and trace it as it departed Thursday evening for Saudi Arabia (the destination was unlisted at the time).

Silk Way Airlines cargo plane 4K-SW888 takes off from Cagliari airport with a cargo of bombs bound for Saudi Arabia (

Silk Way Airlines cargo plane 4K-SW888 takes off from Cagliari airport with a cargo of bombs bound for Saudi Arabia (

After losing track of the plane over Egypt, we picked it up again as it crossed over the Red Sea and began to descend toward Jeddah. In a last-minute change of route, the plane was diverted to Taif, a regional airport that is also a military base of the Royal Saudi Armed Forces. The transponder appears to have been switched off once it reached Taif, but flight data confirms it departed from there Friday morning, October 30.

A ‘regular commercial flight’

Angered by the shipment from a civilian airport, Sardinian politician Mauro Pili says he asked Italy’s Civil Aviation Authority (ENAC) if the cargo plane was authorised to carry weapons. ENAC issued a statement, published by the ANSA news agency, that the plane was “duly authorized” as “a regular commercial flight.” Pili also uploaded video evidence of the cargo being loaded.

ENAC’s statement translated:

“In merito alle notizie apparse oggi su alcune agenzie di stampa relativamente ad un volo operato dall’aeroporto di Cagliari con a bordo materiale bellico”, l’Enac in una nota spiega che “si trattava di un volo di natura commerciale regolarmente autorizzato nel contesto delle previsioni normative internazionali tecniche che disciplinano il trasporto di tali materiali”.

“With regard to the news published today on some news agencies regarding a flight operated from Cagliari carrying war material”, ENAC in a statement explains that “it was a commercial flight duly authorized in context of international technical regulations governing the transport of such materials. “

This statement suggests that the cargo was authorized by Italy’s Department of Defence or Department of Foreign Affairs. With help from Italian contacts, we are asking the ministries if this is the case, and if necessary we will submit a parliamentary question to find out. [UPDATE: We understand a parliamentary questions will be submitted during session on Friday, October 30.]

While we cannot say with absolute certainty that these bombs were unloaded at Taif airport for use by the Saudi armed forces, is it highly likely that they were given the ongoing conflict and the trade that is proven between RWM Italia and Saudi Arabia. In July, Italian Arms Analyst Giorgio Beretta exposed yet another shipment of bombs to Saudi Arabia.

This latest evidence suggests a greater urgency in delivering the bombs to Saudi – in a previous contract with the UAE, bombs were shipped by sea through Jeddah port.

Together, this evidence strongly suggests that the Italian government continues to grant licenses for the export of arms to forces bombing Yemen with horrendous consequences. At least three shipments have been made since the bloody conflict began.

After thousands of civilian deaths, millions displaced and half the population facing food shortages, Yemeni society has all but collapsed. Egregious human rights abuses by both the Saudi-led coalition and Houthi militias fighting to retain control have been documented (see our StoryMap below), including the recent bombing of an MSF hospital in the northern city of Saada.

Dirty money, legal questions

Many European and American pension funds, including state funds, have benefited from the billion-dollar revenues of RWM Italia and it’s German parent company, Rheinmetall Defence AG. But this is dirty money. EU member states are bound by specific criteria on arms exports, as explained previously to by Patrick Wilcken, Amnesty International Researcher on Arms Control, Security Trade and Human Rights:

Under the Arms Trade Treaty and the EU Common Position on arms export control, Italy must undertake a rigorous case-by-case risk assessment of each proposed arms transfer to determine if there is a substantial risk that the arms are likely to be used by the intended recipient to commit or facilitate serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. If there is a substantial risk, Italy must deny the export license. [Emphasis by]

This latest arms shipment comes on the day that the jailed Saudi blogger, Raif Badawi, was awarded the European Union’s top human rights prize. The EU would do well to examine the legality of these shipments and sanction Italy if they prove illegal.

StoryMap: A Trail of Civilian Death in Yemen


How your pension fund profits from bombing Yemen

Our previous investigation into RWM Italia bombs being shipped to the UAE and found in Yemen:


Live tracking of the plane

About the author

Malachy Browne

Malachy was the founding Managing Editor and Europe Anchor of from 2015 until April 2016. Based in Ireland, he worked with the European team to report on international stories emerging through online communities and citizen networks. Malachy has reported on the Arab Spring, conflicts in Ivory Coast, Yemen, Syria and Ukraine, humanitarian crises from Somalia’s famine to Typhoon Haiyan, and social and civil rights movements. He has written about eyewitness media and citizen networks for Al Jazeera, Open Democracy and the European Journalism Centre.

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