Trial told Britain beat arms embargoes: Royal Ordnance said to have aided transfer of machine-guns

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The Independent Online
BRITISH officials helped the export of arms to banned countries in the mid-1980s on a far greater scale than has been revealed to the Scott inquiry, with its remit restricted to arms to Iraq, according to evidence being given in a German court case.

The East German security services and the Contra rebels in Nicaragua were said to be among recipients of arms routed through Britain, in defiance of international agreements. Officials with the Royal Ordnance, then the state-run arms company, provided falsified documents, it has been claimed.

The allegations, made during the prosecution of the managing director of the leading German machine-gun-maker, Heckler & Koch, suggest a pattern of repeated disregard for international arms embargoes by the British government's arms manufacturer.

Royal Ordnance - which was privatised and sold to British Aerospace in 1987 - is being accused of helping Heckler & Koch to evade restrictions on exporting its compact machine-guns and rifles, which are favoured by special forces all over the world, including the British Special Air Service.

The prosecution alleges that the British company did that by pretending to import the weapons into Britain as the 'end-user' and then exporting them to their real destinations, many of which were affected by German, and in some cases, international embargoes. Sources close to the prosecution have told the Independent that they have evidence of 50 examples over 10 years.

The case is focusing on a shipment of 1,100 Heckler & Koch machine-guns, some of which were seized in Italy in 1987 on their way to the United Arab Emirates, a destination banned under German law.

Their true destination, however, was thought to be Iraq, according to the Italian police, who made the original arrests in 1987. The ship, which had sailed from Liverpool, was sailing under the flag of Qatar and the police noted 17 officers of the Iraqi navy among the 23 sailors.

The court has been told that the guns were allegedly assembled from German parts at the Royal Ordnance small arms division's factory in Enfield, north London. Royal Ordnance added the firing pins to the finished weapons and procured false documentation showing they were destined for use in Britain. The prosecution has claimed that Royal Ordnance's role was to 'build a smokescreen'.

Walter Lamp, the managing director of Heckler & Koch, based in Oberndorf, in Baden-Wurttemberg, is pleading not guilty to breaching German law on weapons exports, arguing that he was not personally responsible for export licensing. If convicted, he could face up to 10 years in prison.

Apart from shipments to the Middle East, German customs officials have alleged at the trial that Royal Ordnance was involved as a 'middleman' helping Heckler & Koch to export guns to East Germany. At least 300 Heckler & Koch weapons have been found since reunification in the possession of the former communist security forces and police. Parts allegedly went from Oberndorf to England, where the guns were assembled and then shipped to Rostock.

The prosecution has issued a statement stating that Heckler & Koch weapons were also found in Nicaragua in the possession of the Contra guerrillas in 1986. The statement alleges that the weapons went via Royal Ordnance.

The case, which has been adjourned for Christmas, has attracted extensive media attention in Germany.

Sources close to the German prosecution are not clear to what extent the British government knew of the company's alleged activities with Heckler & Koch before its 1987 privatisation and sale to British Aerospace. In 1991, Royal Ordnance bought Heckler & Koch.

British Aerospace told the Independent: 'The alleged events took place before Royal Ordnance purchased Heckler & Koch. It is an individual that is on trial, not the company, and it is inappropriate for British Aerospace to comment.'