British delegation will visit Libya in effort to kick-start arms deals

 

It has been little more than a fortnight since Muammar Gaddafi was pulled from a culvert in his hometown of Sirte and shot dead.

As Libya struggles to rebuild, power effectively rests in the hands of the heavily armed militias who ousted the former dictator.

But that hasn't stopped the British government from pushing ahead with plans to renew arms sales to the war-torn country. The Independent has learned that a defence industry trade delegation is planning to travel to Libya early next year in the hope the country's new pro-western National Transition Council will become lucrative customers.

UK Trade and Investment (UKTI), the government department which promotes British business interests abroad, is planning to take defence manufacturers to Tripoli in February for a series of meetings with senior government officials. The news will alarm human rights campaigners, who have spent the past nine months documenting the readiness of autocratic Middle Eastern regimes to use imported equipment to violently quell popular opposition movements.

UKTI insists that plans to send the delegation are still at a discussion stage and will only involve "civil security", not military hardware. "Libya is still under a UN arms embargo so any exports would need to go through the UN," a UKTI spokesperson said.

"The mission would be to see where Britain could offer help on civil security such as police training and border patrols. We have not approached any British companies yet, although we hope to do so over the coming weeks."

Last month Lord Green, minister for Trade and Investment, visited Tripoli to see what role Britain could play in rebuilding Libya's infrastructure and economy. After months of internecine conflict in a country with vast energy reserves, international businesses are well aware of the vast sums of money to be made.

Those nations that took part in the Nato airstrikes against Gaddafi's regime – notably Britain and France – are determined to reap the rewards of backing the National Transition Council and claw back some of the money spent on their costly bombing campaign. Some have estimated the value of contracts in oil, infrastructure and education to be worth as much as £200bn.

Kaye Stearman, from the Campaign Against Arms Trade, criticised the delegation plans and its timing. "The UK government professes to support a democratic and peaceful future for Libya, yet, even before the dead and injured have been counted, it is mounting trade missions to sell arms to a damaged and traumatised people," she said. "They show no shame at their past record on arms sales and no willingness to change."

During questions in Parliament this week, Trade Minister Mark Prisk revealed a list of other countries UKTI's Defence and Security Organisation are planning to visit over the next five months. Among those listed are a number of human rights abusers including Saudi Arabia, Colombia, Kazakhstan and India. Later this month a delegation will travel to the Saudi capital Riyadh in what a UKTI flyer has advertised as "a great opportunity for UK Defence & Security companies to meet decision makers of the major Saudi organisations active in Saudi Arabia's Defence & Security sector".

Saudi Arabia is preparing for its first major security exhibition, IFSEC Arabia. The country is one of Britain's largest defence customers despite concerns over its autocratic rulers and a dismal human rights record. Recently Saudi troops were sent to Bahrain to help the Sunni Khalifa dynasty quell pro-reform protests led by the country's majority Shi'as.

Brothers In Arms

Saudi Arabia

King Abdullah's monarchy remains Britain's largest arms purchaser despite its dismal human rights record and involvement in suppressing protests in Bahrain earlier this year. Earlier this summer Saudi Arabia was invited to Britain's DSEi arms fare and there are UKTI (UK Trade and Investment) trips planned for this month and March next year. In 2006 an attempt by the Serious Fraud office to investigate bribery allegations over the sale of Typhoon fighter jets to Saudi Arabia was halted by Tony Blair.

Colombia

UKTI is planning to send a defence delegation to Colombia in February. The government insists that weapon sales to Colombia are minimal and that defence contracts revolve around drug busting. But Colombia's armed forces, who lead the fight against drugs, have been accused of a plethora of human rights abuses.

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