German prosecutors probe firms for Syria chemical weapons links

BERLIN Wed Mar 19, 2014 11:36am EDT

BERLIN (Reuters) - The German government has asked federal prosecutors to examine whether German firms broke the law by exporting equipment to Syria during the 1980s and early 1990s that may have helped the country to develop chemical weapons.

An economy ministry spokesman said on Wednesday that the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) had provided a list of firms to Germany based on information supplied to it by Syria.

Damascus agreed last year to destroy all chemical weapons facilities and surrender 1,300 metric tons of toxic agents to a joint OPCW/United Nations mission. It has until June 30 to eliminate its chemical weapons program completely.

The deal averted the threat of U.S. missile strikes to punish Damascus for an August 21 sarin gas attack that killed hundreds of people in the outskirts of the Syrian capital.

In signing the convention, Syria committed to providing full details about how it had developed its chemical weapons.

"The list spans from the 1980s to the start of the 1990s. It was given to the Federal Prosecutor's office, which is looking to see whether there were any crimes committed," said the spokesman for the economy ministry.

Some deliveries were made, however, before goods required export licenses, or fell under later arms control laws.

A foreign ministry spokesman said it would be premature to conclude Germany had enabled Syria to develop a chemical weapons program, adding that it could be hard after more than two decades to prove any crime had been committed.

Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper reported on Wednesday that German firms had made more than 50 deliveries of monitoring and control systems, pumps, ventilators, gas detectors and sulfuric acid that could be used to produce sarin.

German project sketches for the construction of two plants capable of producing materials used in sarin production stemming from 1983 and 1984 were also found, according to the paper. It was not clear where they had been discovered.

Russia, France and China are also said to have been involved in providing goods to Syria, the report said.

Last September the government published records showing Germany exported 111 metric tons of chemicals to Syria between 2002 and 2006 that could be used in the production of sarin gas. But it rejected suggestions from Left party politicians that it might have inadvertently contributed to the sarin attack in Syria last August.

Western governments blamed the lethal attack on President Bashar al-Assad, but the Syrian government said the weapons were unleashed by rebels fighting to topple him in a civil war.

The chemicals were classified as "dual use" under European Union law, meaning they could be used for either civil or military purposes. They require special export permits.

Arms exports are a sensitive issue in Germany because of its

Nazi past and the role of its arms makers in fuelling 19th and 20th century wars. Modern chemical warfare was pioneered by the Germans on the battlefields of World War One.

(Reporting by Alexandra Hudson; Editing by Stephen Brown and Mark Trevelyan)

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