SA armour 'used in Iraq'

South African armoured cars are being sold to the United States army for use in Iraq, despite the often-stated opposition of the government to the US-led invasion and strict laws forbidding the export of military equipment to conflict zones.

Last year 148 South African-built RG-31 armoured personnel vehicles (APCs) worth about R468-million were bought by the US army. They are now, according to the United Nations, being used by the US in Iraq.

BAE Land Systems OMC of Benoni received permission from the National Conventional Arms Control Commission (NCACC) to export the nine-man APCs last year. President Thabo Mbeki’s brother, Moeletsi, and anti-apartheid struggle stalwart Diliza Mji are shareholders in the company.

The NCACC said in reply to questions from the Mail & Guardian that it gave permission “to export certain vehicles to the USA with the USA identified as the end-user of those vehicles”. As Iraq was not the end-user, the commission said, it would not answer questions about the deployment of the vehicles in that country.

The commission has twice missed the statutory deadline to report to Parliament on exports of defence equipment, but the UN Register of Conventional Arms, which depends on the NCACC for annual arms exports data, reported on June 15 that the vehicles’ “intermediate destination” was Iraq. They were being used by the US army, the report said.

BAE Land Systems was set up by British defence contractor BAE Systems as part of its efforts to meet offset obligations incurred when it supplied Hawk training jets and Gripen fighters in South Africa’s 1999 arms deal. BAE Systems owns 75% of the company, with the remaining 25% held by local black economic empowerment partners, including Mbeki and Mji.

Ronnie Mamoepa, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson, initially said he was “unaware” of the exports. He later added: “There is no way we would condone the supply of weapons to a conflict zone.”

Confusion surrounds the role of the state defence procurement agency Armscor in helping to certify that the APCs met stringent armour standards introduced by the US military to meet the rising threat of roadside bombs or “improvised explosive devices”.

In its annual report last year, Armscor stated that its armour development subsidiary was “heavily involved in support of local vehicle manufacturers in their export drives. This involved ballistic qualification of vehicles ... which culminated in export orders.

“This also caused a demand for new armour against more stringent specifications … The turmoil in the Middle East and the war in Iraq placed heavy demands on our traditional armour steel suppliers. The products of alternative armour steel suppliers had to be qualified and novel alternative composites had to be developed to enable vehicle manufacturers to supply their customers.”

Bertus Celliers, a communications manager for Armscor, indicated that “[BAE] Land Systems OMC” was the vehicle manufacturer referred to in the report and said that “[private] industry also paid for use of the test ranges, test ammunition and hourly rates for armour development engineers”.

BAE Systems in the United Kingdom, however, denies getting help from Armscor in this instance. “From time to time BAE Systems Land Systems OMC makes use of Armscor’s services and test facilities for general product development purposes … BAE Systems Land Systems OMC has not made use of Armscor or its institutes for any work on the contract for RG-31s currently in service with the US military,” a spokesperson told the M&G.

In separate, privately arranged deals more armoured personnel vehicles were sold to a large engineering firm, the Parsons Corporation of the US, and they too are in use in Iraq.

Parsons works closely with the US Army Corps of Engineers and Kellogg Brown & Root on projects in Iraq. It is currently involved in the rehabilitation of Taji Military Airbase—that will form part of a lasting US Air force presence in Iraq—the Restore Iraqi Oil project and is also refurbishing a childrens’ hospital in Baghdad.

Last year the Parsons Corporation purchased 12 Mamba and 15 Casspir (APCs) in addition to 10 bought in 2004.

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