Germany extending Saudi arms freeze to end-March: foreign minister

FILE PHOTO: German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Berlin, Germany, February 20, 2019. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany said on Wednesday it would extend until the end of March a unilateral halt on arms shipments to Saudi Arabia imposed due to concerns about its role in Yemen’s war and the killing of a journalist, stretching the embargo beyond a March 9 deadline.

Germany’s coalition government is under mounting pressure from Britain and France, its partners in European defense projects including supplies of military equipment, to lift the ban or risk damage to commercial credibility.

Already worried about Saudi involvement in Yemen’s ruinous conflict, Germany’s coalition government agreed to ban future arms sales to Riyadh in November after Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered by Saudi agents in Istanbul. It also temporarily halted deliveries of previously approved kit.

“We in the government have decided to extend the export ban until the end of March, and we have done this with an eye on developments in Yemen,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told reporters in Berlin.

“Not only will there not be any permits issued until the end of this month, but products with permits already granted will also not be delivered,” he added.

Maas is the first government official to publicly confirm the extension, which was first reported last week.

The issue is dividing Germany’s ruling coalition, with Maas’s Social Democrats, junior partners to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives, reluctant to alienate voters who are generally skeptical about arms sales and military spending.

Germany’s decision to unilaterally halt all shipments of military equipment to Saudi Arabia after the killing Khashoggi has brought long-standing differences between Berlin and its European partners over arms controls to a tipping point.

The move has put a question mark over billions of euros of military orders, including a 10 billion pound ($13.13 billion) deal to sell 48 Eurofighter Typhoon jets to Riyadh, and has prompted some firms such as Airbus to strip German components from some of their products.

Writing by Paul Carrel, Editing by William Maclean