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Germany defends export of tanks to Qatar

BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany defended on Friday a decision to allow the export of tanks and artillery to Qatar, saying it was confident the arms would not be used in a war in Yemen between government supporters and the Iran-allied Houthis.

The newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung reported on Friday that four German Leopard 2 tanks and three howitzers had been shipped from Germany, bound for Qatar.

The government said the deal was justified, despite opposition parties accusing Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel of failing to stop the exports to Qatar, which has been reported as sending troops to fight in Yemen.

The shipment is controversial because Gabriel, who is also economy minister, vowed last year to be much more cautious in licensing arms exports, and because Berlin is seeking to de-escalate tensions in the Middle East.

“Regarding Yemen, Qatar explicitly has no plans for the delivery of combat equipment and is supporting the situation there by delivering humanitarian aid supplies,” German government spokeswoman Christiane Wirtz said.

“We are rather confident that those weapons can and will not be deployed in current armed conflicts, such as in Yemen,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Martin Schaefer said.

Military sources told Reuters last month that Qatari troops were headed to Yemen and preparing to join a new push against Houthi positions in the country’s capital, Sanaa.

Wirtz said the export of the arms was approved in 2013 under the previous government but that the deal still had the support of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s office.

“In the view of the chancellery, such a delivery is justifiable,” Wirtz told a regular government news conference.

Gabriel’s Social Democrats (SPD) were not part of the previous government, in which Merkel’s conservatives ruled in coalition with the Free Democrats. The SPD is now junior coalition partner with Merkel’s conservatives.

Opposition parties took aim at Gabriel, saying he could have stopped the export of the arms to Qatar.

“Now Gabriel is trying to pin the blame on the previous government or other ministries,” said Jan van Aken, a defense expert with the left-wing opposition Linke party. “But the fact is, he could have stopped these exports.”

The opposition Greens also criticized the arms deal.

A spokeswoman for Gabriel’s Economy Ministry said checks had been made on the permission granted to deliver the arms to Qatar and the conclusion was that it could not be revoked.

“The minister ... has made clear that he considers tank deliveries to the Arabic region to be problematic,” the spokeswoman added.

The 2013 agreement allowed Munich-based arms manufacturer Krauss-Maffei Wegmann to export a total of 62 Leopard 2 tanks and 24 howitzers, worth 2 billion euros ($2.21 billion), the Sueddeutsche said. The recent shipment was the first of those exports.

Gabriel’s promise last year on licensing arms exports unnerved Germany’s sizeable defense industry and signaled a change in policy from the previous coalition government, under which sales rose.

Despite Gabriel’s pledge, Berlin approved significantly more arms exports in the first half of this year, official figures showed on Tuesday.

Editing by Alison Williams