Authorities said the guns were headed to Yemen's restive Saada region, where Shiite rebels have fought government forces for years. Dubai's government described the find as the largest arms shipment of its kind discovered in the region.

Dubai police said on Thursday the Gulf emirate has seized thousands of small arms being smuggled in a sea cargo shipment bound for Yemen.

Authorities said the guns were headed to Yemen's restive Saada region, where Shiite rebels have fought government forces for years. Dubai's government described the find as the largest arms shipment of its kind discovered in the region.

Lt. Gen. Dahi Khalfan Tamim, Dubai's police chief, said authorities found the 16,000 Turkish-made pistols in a red cargo shipping container, hidden behind boxes of furniture wrapped in plastic. The weapons were discovered in a Dubai warehouse about two weeks ago, he told reporters.

Police showed photos and a video of thousands of metallic black, silver and gold coloured handguns laid out on a concrete parking lot.

The shipment originated in Turkey and passed through an Egyptian port before reaching Dubai's Jebel Ali port, police said. The smugglers had intended to transport the weapons through another Gulf country instead of Dubai but changed their plans to secure a more convenient shipping route, police said.

Lt. Gen. Tamim declined to name the other Gulf country meant to serve as a transport point, but said it wasn't Saudi Arabia. He said a number of suspects have been arrested with help from the countries involved.

Jebel Ali is by far the busiest port in the Middle East. It and other Dubai docks serve as major transhipment hubs for cargo travelling between Asia, Europe, Africa and the rest of the Middle East.

Yemen has been embroiled in a month of protests seeking to ouster President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has ruled for 32 years. A government crackdown on the opposition has killed dozens.

It was unclear who ordered the shipment. Lt. Gen. Tamim said it was unlikely the weapons were destined for the Yemeni government because they were counterfeit knockoffs of legitimate brands.

He speculated that they might have been bound for Hawthi rebels, a group of Shiite tribesmen who have waged an on-and-off struggle against the government for the last six years.

But they also could have been ordered by middlemen who planned to sell them one by one, he said, noting that the unrest ensures that arms dealers have plenty of customers.

"There is a market in Yemen," he said. "If you want to sell it, people will buy."

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