British companies were given government licences in January 2012 to export chemicals that could have been used to make nerve gas in Syria, ten months after civil broke out in the country, it was revealed Sunday.
The UK government approved licences for British firms in January 2012 to export chemicals to Syria that could have been used to produce nerve gas, it emerged Sunday.
Export licences for potassium fluoride and sodium fluoride were granted ten months after the country descended into civil war, reports first published in the Scottish Sunday Mail revealed.
The licences specified that the chemicals should be used in industrial processes, but fluoride is also a key element in the production of chemical weapons such as sarin - thought to be the nerve gas used in the Assad regime’s alleged August 21 attack in a suburb of Damascus.
Although the licences were revoked six months later, this was due to EU-imposed sanctions on the Assad regime, rather than a decision by the UK government.
The issuing of the licences, by the Department for Innovation, Business and Skills, was confirmed by a little-publicised letter sent in September 2012 by Business Secretary Vince Cable to the House of Commons' Arms Export Controls Committee.
In the letter, Cable admits that licences were “issued on 17 and 18 January 2012 and authorised the export of dual-use chemicals to a private company for use in industrial processes. The chemicals were sodium fluoride and potassium fluoride”.
The letter stresses that the chemicals “were to be used for metal finishing of aluminium profiles used for making aluminium showers” but admits that “they could also be used as precursor chemicals in the manufacture of chemical weapons”.
UK government ‘has very serious questions to answer’
The revelations come at a time when the US and France are pushing for military action against the Assad regime in response to its alleged use of chemical weapons. Britain, however, ruled itself out of taking part in any armed intervention in Syria following a surprise vote against such a move in the House of Commons last week.
While the August 21 attack, which according to the US killed at least 1,429 Syrians, took place months after the licences were approved, Syria has been suspected of using chemical weapons many times in the past.
Opposition MPs are now calling on the coalition government and Vince Cable in particular to explain the decision to sanction the exports.
"The chair of the joint intelligence committee confirmed last week that their assessment was that the Syrian regime had used lethal chemical weapons on 14 occasions from 2012,” said Labour's shadow business secretary, Chuka Umunna.
“There are, therefore, very serious questions to answer as to why, in January 2012, export licences for chemicals to Syria which could be used in the manufacture of chemical weapons were approved.
“It will be a relief that the chemicals concerned were never actually delivered. But, in light of the fact the Assad regime had already been violently oppressing internal dissent for many months by the beginning of 2012 and the intelligence now indicates use of chemical weapons on multiple occasions, a full explanation is needed as to why the export of these chemicals was approved in the first place,” Umunna added.
Umunna’s statement follows comments made by Vince Cable last Wednesday, after the UK announced it was suspending export licences to Egypt because of the ongoing political turmoil.
Cable insisted that: “The UK position is clear: we will not grant export licences where there is a clear risk that goods might be used for internal repression.
He added: “The government takes its export responsibilities very seriously and operates one of the most rigorous arms export control regimes in the world."