Furore over chemical warheads continues

[TamilNet, Monday, 20 August 2001, 18:30 GMT]
(News Feature) The furore over the Sri Lanka Army's purchase of a thousand units of the RPO-A Shmel infantry flamethrower continued this week as the Sunday Leader published further details of a corruption scandal in which the paper claims Army commander Lt. Gen. Lionel Balagalle is involved. Last week the SLA initially defended its purchase of the chemical warheads which are said to be internationally banned but then reversed its position, asserting that the Shmel was in fact not a chemical weapon and hence was not banned.

However, this weekend the Sunday Leader published minutes of a meeting of senior SLA officers, including Balagalle, where it was observed the delay and difficulty in acquiring the rockets were because the RPO-A "falls into the category of a chemical weapon."

In another 2-page expose detailing aspects of the purchase of the 1000 units of the RPO-A, the Sunday Leader said this weekend that the Army was well aware of the specifics of the weapon whilst negotiating its purchase.

rpo_a-shmel.jpg
SHMEL Infantry Flame Thrower: Russians soldiers have used thermobaric weapons, like this RPO-A, in Chechnya, says Human Rights Watch.
"According to minutes documented by the Army, where details to purchase 1000 nos of thermobaric RPO-A Shmel Rocket Launchers were discussed the Director for Plans, Brigadier V.R.De Silva, admits that export licenses are difficult to obtain since the RPO-A Shmel rocket launcher falls into the category of a chemical weapon," the paper said, publishing an image of the page carrying the minutes.

"The Army were also only too aware of the constraints surrounding the import of this weapon. This is why Brigadier V.R.De Silva makes specific mention of this fact pointing out that it is difficult to even obtain export licenses for the weapon since it is a chemical weapon," the paper said.

Earlier last week, the SLA defended its purchase. In an interview to the BBC, SLA spokesman Sanath Karunaratne justified the acquisition of the weapons, pointing out that other countries also had chemical and even nuclear weapons.

However last Friday, the SLA emphatically denied having acquired the weapons. SLA spokesman Karunaratne said the Russian made weapons were infantry flamethrowers which were not banned. "This is totally untrue, a bogus allegation," Karunaratne said, responding to the charge.

"It is not a banned weapon," Karunaratne said further, adding that Colombo's purchase of the flame thrower from Russia did not violate any international law. "This is not a chemical weapon."

When the Sunday Leader first broke the story, the Sunday Leader said the 1000 rockets were bought by the SLA via a London-based company, Gladstone Industrial Holdings, whose directors include a retired SLA officer, Lt. Col. Upali Gajanayake, who stressed that the weapon was internationally shunned.

"It is an internationally banned weapon," Lt. Col. Gajanayake told the Sunday Leader, explaining why the SLA needed to go through his firm, rather than directly to sole Russian manufacturer, to acquire the Shmels. "Officially these items cannot be negotiated via an open tender but can only be bought underground; this is a very sophisticated chemical warhead."


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