by Joe Murphy
An export licence was granted to let “a small quantity” of deadly long-range weapons be shipped out in November for exhibition or testing. Four licences were approved for the rifles, along with assault rifles and semi-automatic handguns, with cleaning kits.
They were signed off by officials in the Department for Business and it was unclear today whether ministers were involved in the decision.
Business Secretary Vince Cable told the Standard: “It is essential to stop arms exports where this could be used to suppress human rights and democratic protests and also fuel regional conflict.” He said he was “certainly surprised” about the export licences, particularly in the case of sniper rifles.
He indicated that he would insist on tougher future curbs over exports to controversial regimes, saying: “We are where we are and have to act correctly from here.”
Horrific wounds among Libyan demonstrators, including limbs ripped off, are consistent with the impact of a high-velocity round from a sniper rifle.
Following calls from the Standard, the Department for Business was this morning contacting the firms involved to establish whether the British weapons were sent back, as required under the licence conditions.
Last week the department suspended export licences to Bahrain and Libya after concern at attacks of protesters.
These licences included tear gas but the department was unable to say this morning whether tear gas was exported to Libya. The Business Department was unable to give details of who signed the export licences and when. A spokeswoman said she understood that decisions were delegated to officials.
The department would not say which companies were involved as this was “commercially confidential”. Britain’s top manufacturer of sniper rifles, the Portsmouth-based Accuracy International, said it was not involved.
“The Government appeared slow to act on freezing assets misappropriated from the Egyptian people,” he said. “They should now be urgently seeking agreement in Europe to freeze assets of the Libyan regime.”
The Treasury said the Government could freeze assets owned by a foreign leader but only after a United Nations or EU vote to impose sanctions, a request from the country involved or a Home Office decision that action was needed to prevent terrorism against Britons.