Belgium embroiled in controversy over sale of military hardware to foreign governments

Belgium is again embroiled in an embarrassing controversy over its most notorious export -- weapons of war. The latest dispute concerns the alleged sale of military hardware to the governments of South Africa, Libya, Uruguay, and Argentina.

Involved are a former foreign minister, as well as the current one; a leftist weekly newspaper; several of the country's 30-odd arms manufacturers; and some very angry parliamentarians.

Moved by the stir, which has been brewing since early last year, Foreign Affairs Minister Charles-Fernand Nothomb recently told a parliamentary committee that only after un grand debatm on the subject would the government's position be formalized. But he did emphasize that if the secrecy clause in the present armaments contract were scrapped, the volume of the country's arms exports (80 percent of production) would fall drastically.

The minister's statement reflected concern over a draft law submitted several months ago that, among other things, would oblige arms manufacturers to file a full dossier on proposed export contracts with the parliament for up to two months of public debate. Proposals now are subject to the approval of only the ministries of foreign affairs, external commerce, cooperation, and economic affairs.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has the most say in approving or disapproving arms- export requests. And former Foreign Minister Henri Simonet, according to the leftist weekly, Pour, which published an article on the case last May, approved the export of five armored vehicles to Argentina last year even though his wife was a high official in the company that manufactured the equipment.

Arguing that there was no conflict of interest because his wife left the company before he gave his approval, Mr. Simonet has taken Pour to court over the article, suing the publication for 1 million Belgian francs ($320,000).

The former foreign minister, who is reported likely to replace the aging secretary- general of NATO, Joseph Luns, drew attention last March when the Flemish newspaper De Morgen published a photo of some 15 tanks on the quay in Zeebrugge awaiting shipment to Uruguay. It was later revealed that Mr. Simonet had approved the export license for military equipment worth 320 million Belgian francs ($10.2 million), including the tanks, to Uruguay. The equipment was eventually delivered.

The Libyan connection of the current arms controversy involves the sale (also approved earlier this year by Mr. Simonet) to the Tripoli government of 6 billion Belgian francs ($192 million) in mines and grenades manufactured by PRB, a Belgian company. In November 1980, a member of Parliament told the press that 15 Libyans had been in Belgium since August receiving training under PRB auspices in the use of the equipment, an accusation that was later confirmed by the government. The parliamentarian wondered publicly why Belgium has allowed itself to become, through the intermediary of Libya, an accomplice in the international terrorism.

Meanwhile, PRB has been busy denying charges made in a British TV broadcast that it cooperated with Israeli, American, and British firms in the sale of arms and ammunition, including 60 howitzer cannons and 60,000 shells, to South Africa. A contract was reported last June to have been signed in Brussels four years ago by the South African government and Space Research Corporation International (a Belgian company founded partly by PRB in 1972), one year before the UN arms embargo against South Africa took effect.

About 70,000 Belgians are directly or indirectly involved in the arms industry.

The Ministry of Commerce lists under "armes pures" (tanks, arms, and ammunition) exp orts last year worth 15 billion francs ($480 million).

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