Sri Lanka acquires ‘banned’ weapons

[TamilNet, Monday, 13 August 2001, 16:19 GMT]
(NEWS FEATURE) The Sri Lanka Army has acquired an infantry weapon with a chemical warhead whose use has been shunned internationally except by Russia due to the risk to civilians, press reports said this weekend. In an expose, the Sunday Leader said that the SLA had spent several million dollars to acquire 1000 units of the shoulder-fired RPO-A Shmel Rocket Launcher, but that amidst bribes sought by the SLA commander, Lt. General Lionel Ballagalle, the weapons delivered were of old stock and may have exceeded their shelf life. The US Defence Intelligence Agency says the weapon’s chemical warhead is toxic and hence dangerous even if it fails to detonate.

The flamethrower type weapon, which the Sunday Leader says has been banned by the United States is only manufactured by a single firm in Russia and was bought by the SLA via a London-based company, Gladstone Industrial Holdings, whose directors include a retired SLA officer, Lt. Col. Upali Gajanayake. The Sunday Leader interviewed the latter as part of its investigation into the alleged corruption.

“It is an internationally banned weapon,” Lt. Col. Gajanayake told the Sunday Leader, explaining why the SLA needed to go through his firm, rather than directly to sole Russian manufacturer, to acquire the Shmels. “Officially these items cannot be negotiated via an open tender but can only be bought underground; this is a very sophisticated chemical warhead.”

Although usually referred to in descriptive literature as a flame-thrower, the RPO-A Shmel (Bumblebee in Russian) is a rocket-propelled incendiary/blast projectile launcher, according to Janes’ weapons expert Terry Gander. “One projectile fired is described by the Russians as `thermobaric' as it appears to utilise advanced fuel-air explosive techniques which, on detonation, create deflagration as the warhead cloud expands,” says Gander. When utilised against structures the blast effect of the projectile is stated to be equivalent to a 122 mm howitzer shell, he says.

The weapon – along with other fuel air mixture weapons - has been used by Russian troops in Chechnya, where human rights groups have long criticised the indiscriminate nature of the weapon which has resulted in heavy civilian casualties and horrific injuries.

In a statement February 2000 on the use of such weapons in Chechnya, Human Rights Watch said “The use of fuel-air explosives … represents a dangerous escalation in the Chechnya conflict--one with important humanitarian implications.”

“In urban settings it is very difficult to limit the effect of this weapon to combatants, and the nature of FAE explosions makes it virtually impossible for civilians to take shelter from their destructive effect,” HRW said, adding that “because they are wide-area weapons, military forces must exercise extreme caution and refrain from using them in or near population centers.”

The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency in a 1993 report says, “The [blast] mechanism against living targets is … unpleasant… If the fuel deflagrates but does not detonate, victims will be severely burned and will probably also inhale the burning fuel. Since the most common FAE fuels are highly toxic, undetonated FAE should prove as lethal to people caught within the cloud as most chemical agents”

A separate Central Intelligence Agency report says “it is possible that victims of FAEs are not rendered unconscious by the blast, but instead suffer for several seconds or minutes while they suffocate.”

One thousand RPO-A Shmels were delivered to the SLA in a single planeload on July 17, the Sunday Leader claimed, adding that the colleague of Gajanayake, Ameer Temour, who negotiated the deal with a Ukrainian arms supplier was fired on July 17. Temour told the paper that Gajanayake had submitted expenses claims of nearly half a million US dollars which were bribes for Ballagalle and other senior SLA officers.

Whilst the SLA had expected to take delivery of 1000 brand new warheads, the paper claims the batch delivered comprised 400 manufactured in 1989 and 600 in 1991. The weapon expires after 10 years. The sole manufacture is KBC Instrument Design Bureau in Tula, Russia.

“[The age of the delivered units] explains how Gladstone was able to negotiate the supply and export the items without contravening any rights the manufacturing company in Russia held to be the sole authority to supply the brand new item,” the paper said.


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