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T-72s Were Indeed Being Sent to Sudan Rebel Army

by John Reed on December 9, 2010

Well it’s finally confirmed. Those mystery tanks discovered by pirates who commandeered the MV Faina back in late 2008 were indeed meant for the rebel government in southern Sudan.

It’s long been speculated that the cargo of 32 T-72 tanks, 150 grenade launchers and six antiaircraft guns were being shipped from the Ukraine to Sudan. Now, the diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks (love em or hate em) definitively show the weapons were en route to the war torn nation. In fact, the tanks were just the latest shipment in a large-scale effort to arm the breakaway government with modern tools of war. An effort that the U.S. tacitly approved of and then changed its mind about when the Obama administration took charge.

Today’s New York Times describes the mystery as the partial result of a vague U.S. policy on how to handle the split up of Africa’s largest country:

According to several secret State Department cables made public by WikiLeaks, the tanks not only were headed to southern Sudan, but they were the latest installment of several underground arms shipments. By the time the freighter was seized, 67 T-72 tanks had already been delivered to bolster southern Sudan’s armed forces against the government in Khartoum, an international pariah for its human rights abuses in Darfur.

The breakaway government in the south and Khartoum signed a peace treaty in 2005 allowing the south to arm itself with some modern weaponry and paving the way for a referendum on southern independence scheduled for Jan. 9, 2011.

Naturally, the U.S. knew about the deal. It even helped the south buy communications gear and nonlethal weapons as well as provided “combat arms soldier training,” according to the article.

It goes on to say the U.S. found out about the shipments of heavy weapons in 2008 and wasn’t thrilled about them. But wasn’t exactly in the mood to stop them, either. The Bush administration basically asked everyone involved to keep it on the D.L. After all, the weapons were going to protect a people who had been repeatedly ravaged by the north.

Bush administration officials knew of the earlier weapons transactions and chose not to shut them down, an official from southern Sudan asserted in an interview, and the cables acknowledge the Kenyan officials’ assertions that they had kept American officials informed about the deal.

It adds later:

In a cable from Oct. 19, 2008, Alberto M. Fernandez, who served as the chargé d’affaires in Khartoum, reports that he told officials from southern Sudan that while the United States would prefer not to see an arms buildup in the region, it understood that the government there “feels compelled to do the same” as the north. He also cautioned the officials to take care, if there were future shipments, to avoid a repeat hijacking by pirates and “the attention it has drawn.”

However, once President Obama took office the State Department became concerned that the weapons were bound for a nation on the state sponsor of terrorism list; even if they were flowing to a U.S.-backed movement trying to secede from the state that sponsors terrorism.

Taking a stricter position than the Bush administration on the tanks, the State Department also insisted that the shipments were illegal, since Sudan was on the United States’ list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Kenya, which has been holding the weapons since the pirates released the ship in 2009, was suddenly “confused.” It had gone along with earlier U.S. requests to keep the shipments quiet and told the world that it had bought the tanks from Ukraine.

Then the U.S. changed administrations and changed its mind on the shipments, condemning them and getting seriously pissed at Kenya for keeping up the ruse, even threatening sanctions.

“We also recognize that some members of your government informed some members of the USG that this deal was being prepared,” the cable, which was sent by Secretary Clinton, added. But the cable argued that southern Sudan did not need the tanks, they would be difficult to maintain and they would “increase the chance of an arms race with Khartoum.”

That did not appear to mollify the Kenyans. A cable on Dec. 16, 2009, recounted that the head of Kenya’s general staff told American officials that he was “very confused” by the United States position “since the past transfers had been undertaken in consultation with the United States.” According to the cable, the Kenyans asked whether the Obama administration was reconsidering whether to move forward with a referendum under the peace accord and whether it was “shifting its support to Khartoum.”

In recent months, the Obama administration quietly exempted Ukraine and Kenya from sanctions for the 2007 and 2008 shipments, according to government officials.

While Kenya has yet to ship those tanks to southern Sudan, U.S. lawmakers are now asking for the weapons to be released to the government there.

In what may be the best summation of the whole affair, the article quotes Rep. Donald Payne, D-NJ., chair of the House Foreign Relations subcommittee on Africa as saying:

“Our government knew those tanks were being purchased,” he said in an interview. “The fact is the pirates’ seizure of the tanks is what made them change their policy. I don’t think the Obama administration has a clear policy on Sudan.”

The article makes it sound like some bureaucrats jumped into the middle of an arms race hoping to stop it without doing all of their homework on the situation. With these things, though, who knows the whole story?

Here’s the whole piece.

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