Inquiry ordered over banned landmine sale

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The Government was investigating claims yesterday that a British defence firm was producing and selling anti-personnel landmines four years after they were banned.

Customs and Excise officers joined Derbyshire police to investigate allegations that PW Defence, which is based near Derby, agreed to sell £25,000 of the weapons to an undercover BBC reporter.

The company strenuously denied the charges and blamed the controversy on one of its salesmen becoming "muddled".

Tony Blair's spokesman said: "The allegations are being investigated. This is an area that the Government takes very seriously."

Labour set great political store on outlawing the production and supply of landmines,banning them in 1998 as one of its priorities after winning power.

The BBC Radio 4 programme Today said PW Defence was advertising the E190 fragmentation grenades, which are activated by a trip wire, at a Ministry of Defence-sponsored arms fair in London Docklands.

In a secretly recorded interview, David Howell, its overseas sales manager, appeared to confirm the devices were being made in Britain. Asked about their legal status, he said: "You are on the fringes of legality."

The pressure group Landmine Action, which investigated the company with the BBC, claimed its researchers had also found PW Defence representatives promoting the mines at arms fairs in Greece and South Africa.

The company, a subsidiary of the Chemring Group, said it no longer made the fragmentation grenades or trip wires.

A spokesman said its salesman had become "a bit confused", adding: "I think he had a potential customer that he had never met before and one of the first rules of being a salesman is that you engage people in conversation.

"He did not make clear, unfortunately, that they no longer made them. The context of this is that a BBC reporter was pretending to be someone entirely different. It was entrapment. It was quite artfully done."

The spokesman said the "hard fact" was that the company did not make landmines so it could not fulfil the order.

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