Estonia smells a rat in sprats

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(First Edition)

IN A novel departure from international arms trading norms, the Estonian Defence Ministry has been saddled with 2 million tins of sprats which it bought last year in the hope of exchanging for much-needed weapons.

The government, which has fired the senior official responsible for the purchase, is investigating the scandal, which has already cost the state at least 18m Russian roubles (which could buy about 4,000 Kalashnikov assault rifles).

But for Defence Ministry officials, highly embarrassed by the disclosures, the concern now is to find a buyer for the tinned fish - currently occupying rows and rows of storage space in warehouses close to the capital, Tallinn. 'Having failed to barter them for weapons, we will have to sell off the sprats quickly before they go off,' said Priit Heinsalu of the Defence Ministry. 'They were not exactly of the best quality in the first place. It is all highly irregular.'

According to a report by the state control committee earlier this year, the original decision to buy the sprats was taken by Toomas Puura, the former deputy defence minster, last summer. Mr Puura, apparently inspired by news that the Latvian Defence Ministry had swapped tins of preserved fish for Kalashnikovs from Czechoslovakia, used government funds to buy the sprats from a local fishery through an agent for 60m roubles - 18m roubles above the then market rate.

He then told the army chiefs of staff to try to exchange them for weapons from any East European country - none of which were interested in accepting Russian roubles (the currency in use in Estonia at the time) for their wares.

When Hain Rebas was appointed as Defence Minister after elections in October, he smelled, if not a rat, then certainly plenty of fish. In addition to the sprat deal, Mr Puura was suspected of having leased off former Soviet army properties to private companies without proper authorisation and was promptly sacked.

With its armed forces currently numbering only 4,000 and a desperate shortage of military equipment, Mr Heinsalu admits that Estonia is currently discussing possible arms deals with a number of countries, most controversially, Israel. 'We need the arms to defend ourselves,' he said. 'But I think in future we will stick to using money to buy them.'

In the meantime, anyone looking for a couple of million tins of sprats (price negotiable, Kalashnikovs will do nicely) please contact the Estonian Ministry of Defence.