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Arms shipment secrecy questioned

Thursday 11 February 2016 | Published in Regional

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SUVA – The Fiji government’s been lambasted in parliament for secrecy surrounding the arrival of military equipment from Russia.

Container loads of arms and other military hardware arrived in Suva by sea last month.

But the defence minister has rejected claims of secrecy, saying there is always high security procedures involved when weapons are being transported across the high seas.

Radio New Zealand says details have only slowly emerged since the consignment arrived on the docks in Suva nearly four weeks ago.

There were 20 to 30 containers of gear said to contain small arms, ammunition, military trucks and training equipment, also mobile mechanical workshops to be used in disasters.

RNZI reporter Sally Round says: “And there was one report of a helicopter but that has not been confirmed.

“All this gear is understood to be in the form of aid to Fiji which is the result of a cooperation deal between the two countries signed in 2013.

“Yesterday there were reports that 20 Russian soldiers had flown in, they were quickly ushered through diplomatic channels and they’re understood to be weapons experts to help with the transfer of the equipment.”

Islands Business reports the soldiers landed at Nadi International Airport on a Korean Airlines flight and were taken through the VIP channels normally used for diplomats and dignitaries.

The magazine reports they were met by Fiji Military Forces officers and driven away in waiting transport.

Both the Fiji and Russian governments say the arms are for Fiji’s United Nations peacekeepers who are operating in volatile areas like the Golan Heights.

Rear Admiral Viliame Naupoto, who is military chief in Fiji, has said that the peacekeepers arms are outdated.

Military experts have been speculating that the Fijians are getting some of the very latest Russian weaponry including the expert version of the Kalashnikov assault rifle which uses NATO-standard ammunition.

A Russian foreign ministry spokesperson says they’ve been supplied at the official request of Fiji and there is going to be an official ceremony this month to hand over the weapons and more may be revealed then.

Some government critics in Fiji are concerned about a beefed up military beef up.

Round said: “The concern is mainly around the secrecy of the delivery with the opposition saying the government only explained the consignment when exposed.

“Opponents of the government say the weapons were smuggled into the country with a private security firm involved, although the authorities say they were checked by customs and police.

“There have also been concerns expressed that the equipment could be used for crowd control locally, given the history of military coups in Fiji.

The parliamentary opposition claims the arms deal should have gone through parliament first and therefore it was illegal.

But the Defence Minister Timoci Natuva says the deal was signed with the Russians in 2013 and there was no necessity for it to be announced publicly.

He says a 20-container shipment of weapons is not something that should be announced.

“Shifting arms and ammunition across the world, it goes through a safety process. You don’t have to go around telling people we are providing ammunition for Fiji,” Nativa said.

The Fiji government has revealed the shipment of arms from Russia to Fiji is valued at US$41.8 million.

- See analysis next page.