PARIS (AFP) -Libya has reached a major arms deal with the European aerospace giant EADS, the first since a weapons embargo was lifted on Tripoli in 2004 and a potential source of embarrassment for French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
French Defence Minister Herve Morin confirmed Friday that a letter of intent had been signed for the sale of Milan anti-tank missiles and a radio communications system worth, according to a Libyan official, 296 million euros (405 million dollars).
News of the deal was set to fuel controversy, coming the week after Sarkozy and his wife Cecilia played a key role in brokering the release of six foreign medics sentenced to life imprisonment in Libya.
The five Bulgarian nurses and Palestinian doctor were flown home last week after an eight-year incarceration on charges of deliberately infecting hundreds of Libyan children with the AIDS virus.
Sarkozy, who travelled to Tripoli to sign a nuclear and military cooperation agreement a day after they were freed, has presented their release as a success of French and European diplomacy and denied any link to an arms deal.
But Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi’s son, Saif ul-Islam Kadhafi, said in an interview published Wednesday that the resolution of the medics’ case had paved the way for the signing of major weapons contracts.
The leader of the opposition Socialist Party, Francois Hollande, demanded a parliamentary enquiry to decide if the government behaved inappropriately.
“If there was no exchange, if there was no bartering, why sign a military agreement with the Kadhafi regime, which has been responsible for terrorist acts, which has been a rogue state?” he asked.
Morin said the missile accord was “an agreement between a company and a country,” which had long been in the negotiating pipeline, and that the sale had been approved by the government of Sarkozy’s predecessor Jacques Chirac in February 2007.
He said EADS executives had been in Libya for the past six weeks to hammer out details of the contracts.
“We have to be clear about this: there is no longer an embargo, Libya is a country that has given up its entire military nuclear programme, and which fully accepts inspections from the IAEA,” the UN’s atomic watchdog.
“Therefore there is no reason for countries not to engage in discussions on modernising the Libyan army,” Morin said. “If it’s not us, it will be others. There are a lot of countries in talks with Tripoli: the Italians, the Russians, British….”
Morin repeated there had been no trade-off for the medics’ release but acknowledged that “on arms contracts, the finalisation, the last touch, generally comes via a political act, a visit from the president, or prime minister.”
Libyan officials have sought to cast the accord as a state-to-state deal with France, marking Tripoli’s return to the international fold. France owns 15 percent of EADS — the largest public stake in the consortium.
The comments by Kadhafi’s son appeared to have wrongfooted the French presidency, as Sarkozy prepared to leave on a summer vacation, reportedly in the US lakeside resort of Wolfeboro, New Hampshire.
The Libyan purchases were agreed with subsidiaries of EADS, which is controlled by French and German public and private interests, and of Britain’s BAE Systems.
It is the first arms agreement with a European country since the lifting in 2004 of a European embargo on weapons sales to Libya, imposed following the 1988 Lockerbie airline bombing over Scotland.
EADS confirmed Friday that a deal for the Milan anti-tank missiles had been “finalised” between Libya and MBDA, the world’s number one maker of guided weapons systems which is jointly owned by EADS, BAE Systems and the Italian Finmeccanica.
The French-designed Milan missile is a portable medium-range, anti-tank weapon that has been sold to more than 40 countries since the 1970s.
The company said in a statement that the deal had been secured after 18 months of negotiations and was now “waiting the signature of the Libyan client”.
The sale of the Tetra communications system was still in the process of being finalised, EADS added.