Concern over British weapons makers' visits to Libya
Published 27/02/2011 | 05:00
A British company that supplies riot control ammunition and a manufacturer of electrified razor wire were among an official UK government arms delegation that visited Tripoli as recently as three months ago.
Amid concern that British equipment may have been used by the Gaddafi regime to suppress unrest in Libya, it has now come to light that representatives of at least 50 UK arms companies accompanied an entourage of Whitehall officials to meet military figures in the Libyan capital in November.
Firms included Kidderminster-based Birmingham Barbed Tape, which produces razor wire that delivers a "repulse shock", and Lincolnshire-based Primetake, which offers teargas cartridges and rubber bullets.
Reports from Tripoli indicate that security forces have used teargas as well as live ammunition against protesters, though there is no evidence British products have been involved.
The delegation of UK government trade officials is understood to have been led by Britain's ambassador to Libya, Richard Northern. It attended an arms fair called Libdex at Tripoli's Mitiga military airport, where pro-Gaddafi mercenaries are reported to have landed to help quell the uprising.
The delegation was invited by figures from the Libyan department of defence, the department of public security and the general committee of defence, which days ago declared its forces would cleanse Libya of anti-government elements.
Essex Industries, a UK security firm that was present at the arms fair, says on its website that its stand was praised by the commander of the Libyan air force.
Documents from the UK Department for Business, Innovation and Skills show that since 2008 licences to Libya have included four for the export of combat shotguns and six for small-arms ammunition, along with separate orders for anti-riot weapons and sniper rifles.
Photographs show that British-made high-performance tactical sniper rifles, including the 7.62mm Rangemaster, which has an effective range of 1,000 metres, were on display in Libya during Libdex, though there is no proof that any of the firearms made by Kent-based RPA International were sold to the country.
Concern over Britain's dealings with Gaddafi's government form the backdrop to UN negotiations in New York this week that will try to draw up an international treaty to control the arms trade.
Campaigners said events in Libya meant that provisions on the sale of crowd-control equipment, such as armoured vehicles, teargas and water cannon, would also be part of the talks.
Critics accuse the British government of double standards. Just 18 months ago, foreign secretary William Hague said: "Arms exports controls are designed to protect fundamental human rights. Relaxing the rules to accommodate Libya is wrong."
Yet the export of arms to Libya, a trade that has prospered since the lifting of UK sanctions against the country in 2004, has continued.
Under the coalition government at least 11 export licences to Libya have been granted involving £5m (€5.9m) of small arms.
David Cameron launched a staunch defence of Britain's arms exports last week as he toured the Middle East with eight arms manufacturers.
The prime minister said Britain had "nothing to be ashamed of" for selling weapons to Arab leaders.