Hong Kong's container ports are being used to smuggle arms to one of Africa's most corrupt and repressive regimes under the cover of the worldwide timber trade, says an international watchdog group. The illicit business with Liberia has become the focus of United Nations sanctions after the body's security council passed a resolution last week banning all trade in timber from the troubled West African state. A report by the human rights and environmental group Global Witness has also identified several Hong Kong companies they believe are key players in the illegal arms trade, which sees Chinese-made AK-47s, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers off-loaded in Liberia. The weapons are used to foment conflict and human rights abuses both in Liberia and in the neighbouring states of Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone, creating one of the most violence-racked regions in the world, the group says. Global Witness, a non-governmental organisation which works to expose links between natural resource exploitation and human rights abuses, says the cover of the timber business is used in two ways - either directly, by shipping guns back on the boats which take the Liberian timber to the mainland; or by using the money paid for the logs to buy weapons. China is a major importer of Liberian timber and often the money paid for the logs is used to buy weapons from Eastern Europe and Libya, the report claims. The Global Witness evidence emerged after a United Nations expert panel on Liberia found evidence of illicit shipments of arms to Liberia last year. The new allegations prompted the security council last week to pass a new sanctions resolution on timber exports from Liberia - adding so-called 'conflict timber'' to existing bans on the sale of diamonds and arms from the country. The Hong Kong Customs and Excise Department has studied the report detailing Hong Kong's links, but refuses to comment on it. A spokesman would only say: 'Hong Kong customs is always alert and ready to combat illegal smuggling activities at all land boundary control points, air and sea ports in Hong Kong. We are also on full vigilance over information of all kinds and will take necessary action whenever the situation warrants.'' Investigators have uncovered a maze of companies linking Liberia's biggest logging firm - the Oriental Timber Company (OTC) - to Hong Kong registered firms, most notably the Global Star (Asia) Group, which is registered in Hong Kong. OTC has been accused by the UN of corruption, illegal activity and using money raised by its logging activities to help fund the bloody civil war in neighbouring Sierra Leone, which has killed thousands of civilians and left countless more maimed. OTC's chief executive, Joseph Wong, is now subject to a UN travel ban for his role in supporting armed rebel groups in and around Liberia. The Global Witness report entitled 'The Usual Suspects: Liberia's Weapons and Mercenaries in Cote d'Ivoire and Sierra Leone'' claims that OTC is connected to 'alleged arms brokers in Hong Kong and mainland China''. It says that Mr Wong 'is alleged to have used his connections with Hong Kong and mainland China to procure weapons for shipment from Hong Kong on behalf of OTC''. It also names Hong Kong resident Anthony Ho Kui-hing as being linked to the companies. 'According to an investigative report, two of China's largest arms factories provided weaponry to underground arms brokers. Goods were then shipped in crates and sometimes by cargo ship from Hong Kong to destination ports,'' Global Witness' Michael Lundberg said. Attempts by the Sunday Morning Post to track down listed shareholders in Global Star and related companies uncovered a string of deserted offices and empty residential flats stretching from Central to Mongkok and Yau Ma Tei. 'OTC and Global Star both have a history of changing their names and obscuring their corporate structures in an attempt to hide their illegal activities,'' the report says. In renewing sanctions against Liberia last Tuesday, the security council accused it of fomenting conflicts in West Africa. The UN body added a ban on timber exports in addition to existing arms and diamond embargoes. The UN resolution says the Liberian government had not demonstrated that the revenue from the timber 'industry is used for legitimate social, humanitarian and development purposes, and is not used in violation of the resolution''. Two years ago the security council placed an arms embargo, a ban on diamond exports and a travel ban on Liberian President Charles Taylor and his top associates for fuelling civil war in neighbouring Sierra Leone through a guns-for-gems trade. Previous attempts to impose sanctions on logging had failed with China and France, which imported the timber, opposing them. Singapore and Hong Kong were also closely associated with the logging industry but most foreign firms have pulled out.