Britain sells landmine explosive to US army

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The Independent Online
ROYAL ORDNANCE, a subsidiary of British Aerospace, the UK's biggest weapons manufacturer, is exporting the key explosive component of anti- personnel mines to the United States.

The Landmines Act, passed by Parliament last year, makes the export of anti-personnel mines or components a crime punishable by up to 14 years in jail and/or an unlimited fine.

Yesterday Avon and Somerset Police confirmed it had forwarded a file for investigation by Customs and Excise after a complaint from the Campaign Against the Arms Trade.

Royal Ordnance has a five-year contract worth $88m (pounds 55m) to be the US Army's sole supplier of RDX, an ingredient commonly used in anti-personnel mines. The company is exporting 40 per cent of the explosives from its factory at Bridgwater in Somerset.

The rest will be supplied from the Holston Army Ammunition Plant in Tennessee which Royal Ordnance is operating under a 25-year contract. The plant, the only one in the US with the capacity, has manufactured RDX used in millions of American mines.

The US has refused to sign the Ottawa Treaty banning mines, which has been endorsed by 90 countries, including the UK, after Diana, Princess of Wales, helped to highlight the massive numbers of civilian deaths and injuries they cause.

There are extensive military uses for RDX apart from landmines. But repeated attempts by the Independent on Sunday to question British Aerospace proved futile. A spokesman said: "This is a very serious matter." No further comment could be obtained.

But Steve Abney, spokesman for the US Army's Industrial Operations Command which oversees American arsenals and munitions factories, confirmed that it was technically feasible for Royal Ordnance RDX to be used in anti- personnel mines, and said nothing in the contract would prevent such use.

Nick Harvey MP, the Liberal Democrats' campaign and communications chair, is demanding assurances from Stephen Byers, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, that the RDX supplied by Royal Ordnance is not to be used for mines. Without such an assurance, he warned, the Government's "ethical" foreign policy would be a failure.

"If nothing in the contract explicitly prevents RDX from Somerset or Holston being used in anti-personnel mines then the company has been extremely reckless and has put its employees in danger of prison," Mr Harvey said.

Frank Cook, Labour MP and chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Landmine Eradication Group, said: "If these revelations are true, then Royal Ordnance has certainly behaved recklessly. It's sad when people duck and weave and body-swerve to make a couple of coppers more profit."

Roger Berry, a Labour MP who serves on the Joint Committee on Strategic Exports which monitors overseas sales of military equipment, said the Department of Trade and Industry should have demanded a "contractual element preventing the material being used in landmine manufacture".

Richard Lloyd, spokesman for the UK Working Group on Landmines, joint winner of the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize, said: "The Landmines Act says you can't use an anti-personnel mine, you can't develop or produce one, you can't participate in the acquisition of one, you can't have one in your possession, and you can't participate in the transfer of one. What is more, anything banned in the UK is deemed `prohibited conduct' overseas. If Royal Ordnance doesn't know that, they're incompetent, and if they do, they're endangering their employees. Directors must shoulder the blame for any offence.

"We have a list of American anti-personnel mines and RDX is a component of most of them."

The Government estimates that up to 60 million landmines, many lethal for decades, are scattered across nearly 100 countries.

A spokeswoman for the DTI, which vets exports of military explosives, refused to give details of the Royal Ordnance contract on the grounds of commercial confidentiality. "The Foreign Office has monitoring responsibility for the Landmines Act and all licence applications get rigorous scrutiny," she said. "There are legitimate uses for RDX. A licence would not be granted to a company that wanted to export RDX for use in land mines."