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Britain quizzed over sale of chemicals to Syria.

Summary: The British government is being asked to explain why it granted export licenses for the sale of chemicals to Syria which can be used in the production of nerve gases, after the civil war was well underway.

BEIRUT: The British government is being asked to explain why it granted export licenses for the sale of chemicals to Syria which can be used in the production of nerve gases, after the civil war was well underway.

The export licenses -- for sodium fluoride and potassium fluoride -- were granted in January 2012, 10 months after the civil war had begun and by which point nearly 6,000 people had been killed, according to Local Coordination Committees, an activist network, and concerns about the use of chemical weapons had already been expressed.

A member of the Commons' Committees on Arms Export Control, Thomas Docherty MP has written to Business Secretary Vince Cable, asking for further details on the deal.

The chemicals, which can be used in the production of sarin gas, did not reach Syria in the end, as EU sanctions introduced in the summer of that year blocked their export.

"However," Docherty writes, "the actions of the U.K. government leave serious questions to be answered."

"Did any discussions take place between your officials and those in either the Foreign and Commonwealth Office or Ministry of Defense to determine exactly what these chemicals could be used for?," Docherty asks in the letter, seen by The Daily Star.

He adds, "When did the U.K. government first become aware of their potential use in chemical weapons?"

The revelations, which were first reported in the Scottish Sunday Mail, come as the U.S. weighs taking militarily against the Syrian regime, as it says it has evidence the government used sarin gas in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta on Aug. 21, killing at least 1,429 people, including over 400 children.

Damascus has confirmed that it has chemical weapons, but has said it would not use them against its own people, and vehemently denies claims that it carried out the Ghouta attack.

British government guidelines state that "the government will not issue licenses for exports which would provoke or prolong armed conflicts or aggravate existing tensions or conflicts in the country of final destination," according to the Campaign Against Arms Trade, a British NGO.

"The chemicals licenses were issued when Syria was in turmoil, with massive government repression and armed opposition," Kaye Stearman, spokesperson for the CT, said.

"The parliamentary CAEC had already criticized the government for lack of caution when approving licenses -- this episode seems to bear their criticisms out," she added.

In a statement issued Monday, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which issued the export licenses, claimed the intended recipient company in Syria had "demonstrated that the chemicals were for a legitimate civilian end use -- which was for metal finishing of aluminium profiles used in making aluminium showers and aluminium window frames."

It added, "The U.K. government operates one of the most rigorous arms export control regimes in the world, and has been at the forefront of implementing an international sanctions regime on Syria."

"The licenses were revoked following a revision to the sanctions regime which came into force on June 17, 2012, and the chemicals were not exported to Syria. This shows that the system works and reflects changes made by this government to ensure that the system of export controls is robust, responsive and effective in upholding the highest international standards."

Also Monday, Docherty tabled parliamentary questions on the same issue. Cable has until the end of the week to respond, according to a member of Docherty's Westminster office.

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Geographic Code:7SYRI
Date:Sep 3, 2013
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