Illegal arms sales test for Menem

Click to follow
ROBIN COOK'S suggestion that a post-Falklands ban on arms sales to Argentina might be eased - saying parts of it were "plainly daft" - received front-page treatment here yesterday. So did the fact that Argentine- made arms found their way illegally to two major war zones, Croatia and Ecuador, during the nineties under President Carlos Menem's rule.

Mr Menem's foreign minister, Guido di Tella, who will accompany him on an official visit to London starting today, may soon have to testify before a judge investigating the arms sales, newspapers reported. Mr Menem himself may eventually have to testify, they said.

Judge Jorge Urso, investigating the double arms sales scandal, will on Thursday start questioning military officers who worked at the state arms manufacturing company, Fabricaciones Militares.

A senior officer at the factory, General Antonio Angel Vicario, was detained last week in connection with the case. Another key witness, former navy captain Horacio Estrada, was found dead with a gunshot wound to the head in August, billed as a suicide.

When Argentinian soldiers were serving on the United Nations peace force in Croatia in the early Nineties, they noticed that the Croatians were using Argentine-made FAL automatic rifles despite the UN embargo on arms sales to the region.

In 1995, during the Peru-Ecuador border war, Peru complained that Ecuador was receiving massive shipments of Argentinian arms despite the fact that Argentina was one of four guarantor nations of an earlier Peru-Ecuador peace. En route to London, Mr Menem flew to Brazil yesterday to sign a new Peru-Ecuador peace accord.

With details emerging almost daily, the scandal has shaken Mr Menem's government.

He has admitted that the authorities signed secret decrees for the arms shipments at the time but says they were destined for Panama, in the case of the Croatian guns, and Venezuela, in the case of the Ecuador shipments. They must have been illegally diverted by private arms dealers, he insists.

Mr di Tella, the leading interlocutor in the Falklands dispute, has admitted being warned in advance by his ambassador in Peru of the shipments to Ecuador - including heavy artillery pieces, mortars, machine-guns, rifles and pistols - but said it was too late to stop them. He had done all he could by tipping off his country's military intelligence, he said.

The trouble is, there are strong indications that sectors of the military were well aware of the shipments to both Ecuador and Croatia. And in the latter case, the Argentinian media quoted a former United States state department official, Daniel Nelson, as saying the US government knew Argentinian arms were reaching Croatia despite the UN embargo. He said the US turned a blind eye, wishing to help Croatia resist Serbian offensives.

The scandal caused the resignation of Mr Menem's defence minister during some of the arms sales, Oscar Camilion. Members of Argentina's political opposition are calling for the resignation of the current labour minister, Antonio Erman Gonzalez, who also served as defence minister for a period during the time of the arms sales.

Last week, Argentina's current army commander, General Martin Balza, admitted that he knew at the time that Croatian forces were using Argentine- made weapons but said he did not know, and still does not know, whether they were sold officially by Argentina.