Government announces Rwandan arms probe

Click to follow
The Independent Online
The Foreign Office last night announced a "rigorous" Whitehall investigation into arms trafficking, following embarrassing allegations that a British company evaded a UN embargo to sell pounds 3.3m worth of wea- pons to genocidal Rwandan forces.

A Downing Street spokes-man described the inter-departmental inquiry as a "belt and braces" operation.

But Sir David Steel, the senior Liberal Democrat MP, said last night that the Government had been blind to human rights abuses and deaf to calls for a halt on arms exports to countries which had poor human rights records.

"It is the crisis in Zaire which highlights perfectly the shameful position of our Government over the sales of arms to those regimes who are most ill-suited to buy them," Sir David said in a public lecture in Belfast.

The Foreign Office said in an earlier statement that the Government was "very concerned to learn of allegations that UK companies had been linked to the selling of arms to Rwandan extremists in Zaire."

It said that Customs and Excise had already set up an urgent investigation to establish whether any offence had been committed under UK law.

However, the statement then added the standard Whitehall formula: "There is no evidence available so far to substantiate the various allegations ... There is no indication in these allegations that arms were exported from the UK."

It is alleged that the embargo was breached by a company registered in the Isle of Man, Mil-Tec Corporation, and while there was no suggestion that the arms had originated in the UK, it was clear from papers found in an abandoned refugee camp in Zaire that the operation had been organised from the UK.

The Foreign Office said in its statement: "No licences have been issued to Mil-Tec Corporation Ltd.

Nevertheless, it said an inter-departmental committee had been set up to report back within a month on "procedures in relation to the trafficking in arms and to determine whether there has been a gap in our controls and if so what action needs to be taken.

"Among the areas to be explored by that committee will be whether the Government should have additional powers to prevent supply from third countries by UK nationals and UK companies."

The investigation will include officials from the Depart-ment of Trade and Industry, the Foreign Office, Ministry of Defence, Customs and Excise, Cabinet Office and the Home Office, which has responsibility for relations with the Isle of Man.

Sir David said last night: "The obsession with selling arms in our country has permeated throughout Whitehall.

"The Government has created a culture of arms sales so lax that they should not be surprised when individuals and companies follow suit."