Tonnes of army equipment and 40 ex-German army lorries have been impounded at Antwerp docks. A Customs spokesman said that the equipment included replacement engines for former Soviet tanks, infra-red sights, periscopes and thermal imaging equipment. "This is an exceptional catch. We don't seize 91 container loads of military equipment every day," he said.
Fierce fighting broke out in Eritrea on Saturday when Ethiopia invaded the Badme area after a recurring border dispute. Fighting continued yesterday when Russian-made Ethiopian aircraft attacked villages in Western Eritrea.
The military equipment had been bought in Germany, brought together in Holland and moved by rail to Antwerp for loading on to a ship. Customs officials became suspicious of the cargo, which was listed as building equipment and water pumps. A strict new Belgian law prevents military equipment being exported without an arms export licence.
The British company organising the shipment is the south London-based JMT Charlesworth Ltd, trading as Global Services. John Charlesworth, the owner, speaking from Antwerp yesterday denied that it was military equipment. "It was an order for a Eritrean road construction company called Ghedem," he said.
Mr Charlesworth said that he had struck the deal after being given a Department of Trade and Industry grant to explore export opportunities in Eritrea. Mr Charlesworth said that he had not known there were infra- red sights, periscopes or thermal imaging included in the shipment. The 80 engines are of the type used for Russian made T-54 and T-55 tanks, although he said they were for use in Russian-made bulldozers. He has mounted a legal challenge against the Belgian government over the seizure but the authorities brought in a military intelligence official who confirmed that the shipment was military equipment. An independent expert is due to report shortly.
As a result of the shipment being held up in Antwerp since October, the Eritrean company has pulled out of the deal, Mr Charlesworth said. He denied he dealt in military equipment.
There is no arms embargo in Britain on supplying weapons to Eritrea or Ethiopia, Oxfam said yesterday: "The key issue is arms broking, which was really at the centre of the Sandline affair. It is not illegal if the arms do not touch UK soil."
Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Affairs Foreign Affairs and Defence spokesman, said that "the sooner the law relating to arms brokers is tightened up, the better".
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