Bribes suspected in sale of warships to SA

German prosecutors are investigating possible kickbacks in a sale of warships to South Africa by a German shipbuilding consortium, a prosecutor confirmed on Saturday. The German news magazine Der Spiegel was to appear on Monday with a report that the “irregularities” were suspected of occurring in 1999.

South Africa ordered the four corvettes for coastal protection as part of efforts to modernise its navy. The Thyssen group led a consortium that won the contract to build the vessels, which had been designed in Hamburg.

“We are conducting an inquiry,” said Düsseldorf prosecutions spokesperson Peter Lichtenberg when asked by Deutsche Presse-Agentur for comment on the Spiegel story.
He declined to disclose more, saying this might harm the inquiry.

Der Spiegel’s report said it was suspected that the equivalent of $19-million may have been paid in bribes and then concealed in the shipbuilders’ accounts as “expenses”. It said the possible charges included bribery and tax evasion.

The magazine said there had been a coordinated raid on June 19 on the offices of consortium partners Blohm and Voss in Hamburg, HDW in the Baltic port of Kiel, Thyssen Rheinstahl Technik and MAN Ferrostaal in the western city of Essen.

Thyssen Group spokesperson Klaus Pepperhoff said, “We are confident that this suspicion will not be confirmed as the inquiry proceeds”.

The prosecutor declined to confirm the raids. Issuing its report before publication on Monday, Der Spiegel said prosecutors, police and tax officials are now studying the records seized.

The post-apartheid government in South Africa decided in 1994 to buy new warships, but the German consortium was scratched from the five-country shortlist of suppliers in December of that year, Der Spiegel said.

By that point, only British and Spanish suppliers were left in the race. But four weeks later, the Germans suddenly came back onto the shortlist, with President Thabo Mbeki announcing during a visit by a German minister and businessman that the issue was wide open.

The magazine said the Germans then moved to the front in a complicated tendering procedure and an order for the four warships was signed on December 3 1999.

The decision was criticised in South Africa, with an inquiry concluding in 2001 that the Germans should have been eliminated in the first round for failing to meet several requirements, Der Spiegel said.

Two of the MEKO-A-200-class vessels were built at Blohm and Voss’s yard in Hamburg and two at HDW in Kiel. They are equipped with Exocet surface-to-surface missiles and with missiles to shoot down planes, according the defence-industry media.

The first was delivered in 2003. The MEKO is Blohm and Voss’s standard corvette and frigate series. A corvette is a vessel slightly smaller than a frigate and is suited mainly for coastal protection work.—Sapa-dpa

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