Belgian arms dealer tangles with minister over tanks for Ukraine

TOURNAI, Belgium, Feb 1 (Reuters) – Freddy Versluys doesn’t wish to be referred to as an arms supplier. However he does have a giant warehouse stuffed with second-hand tanks on the market.

Standing subsequent to dozens of German-made Leopard 1 tanks and different army automobiles within the chilly warehouse in japanese Belgium, Versluys confused he’s the CEO of two defence firms with a broad vary of actions, resembling making sensors for spacecraft.

However shopping for and promoting weapons is a part of his enterprise too. And it’s the tanks which have introduced him into the highlight over the previous few days, as he has engaged in a public battle with Belgian Defence Minister Ludivine Dedonder over the potential for sending them to Ukraine.

Whereas different Western nations have pledged in latest weeks to ship important battle tanks to assist Ukraine repel Russia’s invasion, Belgium has not joined that group, for one cause above all: It doesn’t have any tanks left. It offered the final of them – a batch of fifty – to Versluys’s firm greater than 5 years in the past.

Requested why he purchased the tanks, Versluys, a silver-haired man in his mid-60s, stated that was his firm’s enterprise mannequin – it purchased undesirable army gear within the hope that another person would need it in future.

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“There are nonetheless international locations on the planet who’ve these Leopard 1 tanks. So there’s all the time a chance both to promote spare elements or to promote further tanks,” he stated.

However, he added: “After all, it is a gamble… Possibly tomorrow we must scrap them (or) 10 years later they’ll nonetheless be there.”

Dedonder has stated the federal government has explored the concept of shopping for again tanks to ship them to Ukraine. However she has blasted the costs quoted as “unreasonable” and “extraordinarily excessive”. Tanks offered for 10-15,000 euros every are being provided on the market at 500,000 euros, regardless of not being operational, she has stated.

The spat highlights a predicament confronted by Western governments as they scramble to search out extra weapons for Ukraine after virtually a 12 months of intense warfare – arms they discarded as out of date at the moment are in excessive demand, and plenty of at the moment are within the arms of personal firms.

Dedonder hasn’t named Versluys’s firm, OIP Land Techniques, in her accusations. However Versluys is bound he’s her goal. Dedonder declined a request for an interview.

Versluys has taken the bizarre step of going public to dispute the minister’s assertions, providing a uncommon perception into the workings of a enterprise that always prefers to maintain a low profile.

Versluys stated his agency purchased the 50 tanks for about 2 million euros and solely 33 had been useable. That might imply a unit value of 40,000 euros for 50 tanks, or some 60,600 euros for 33.

He stated his promoting value may vary anyplace from a number of hundred thousand to shut to one million euros however that would come with work to refit the tanks, which he insisted could possibly be extremely costly.

Changing the system that controls the gunfire may value 350,000 euros per tank, changing asbestos within the engine may value 75,000 euros, he stated. Every tank needed to be assessed individually.

“We nonetheless have to have a look at what’s their precise standing and what we now have to spend on them to make them appropriate,” he stated.


As a part of his public offensive, Versluys has given journalists excursions of his warehouse on the outskirts of the provincial city of Tournai. It resembles a army hypermarket, crammed with strains of Leopard 1 tanks in dusty inexperienced and black camouflage and scores of different army automobiles, together with cabinets stacked with spare elements and piles of webbing.

In his gross sales pitch, Versluys additionally emphasises that refitted Leopard 1 tanks could possibly be battlefield-ready in months – way more shortly than new fashions ordered as we speak, which is able to take years to provide.

The Leopard 1 is the predecessor of the Leopard 2 tanks that Germany, Poland, Finland and different international locations agreed final month to ship to Ukraine. It’s lighter than the Leopard 2 and has a distinct sort of important gun. The fashions in Versluys’s warehouse had been final upgraded within the Nineties.

Yohann Michel, an analyst on the Worldwide Institute for Strategic Research suppose tank, stated Leopard 1 tanks wouldn’t be as priceless on the battlefield as their successors.

However, he stated, they might nonetheless be of some use in taking over older Russian tanks and in supporting infantry items, notably in the event that they had been refitted to a excessive normal.

If Belgium doesn’t purchase again the tanks, one other nation may buy them for Kyiv. Versluys stated he had held discussions with a number of European governments about that choice.

Final 12 months, Britain purchased 46 infantry preventing automobiles from his agency for Ukraine and despatched out engineers who labored around the clock to refit them, Versluys stated.

Nonetheless, any export of Leopard 1s would require the approval from the Belgian area of Wallonia, the place the corporate is predicated, and from Berlin, because the tanks had been made by German agency KMW.

Versluys is a easy salesman, reeling off names, mannequin numbers and costs of quite a few bits of army equipment. He labored as an engineer within the Belgian army earlier than going into enterprise.

Whereas he doesn’t just like the “arms supplier” label, he stated the weapons enterprise is healthier than its fame: “Opposite to what folks say, it’s fairly a civilised market.”

Reporting by Andrew Grey; Enhancing by Nick Macfie

Our Requirements: The Thomson Reuters Belief Rules.

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