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Last Updated: Thursday, 18 November, 2004, 14:21 GMT
German arms firms muscle in
Leopard 2 tank (pic: Bundeswehr)
The sale of tanks to Turkey has been a contentious issue (pic: Bundeswehr)

Germany is considering selling 350 Leopard II tanks to Turkey - despite having cancelled a similar deal with Ankara five years ago.

The BBC's Ray Furlong in Berlin examines Germany's emergence as the world's fourth largest arms exporter and the heated debate this has triggered.

In the port of Kiel in northern Germany workers are putting the finishing touches to a diesel-electric submarine.

After sea trials next year, this vessel will be delivered to South Africa. In the water next to it, another submarine is being prepared for the Greek navy.

The value of these two sales is about $550m (421m euros or 295m), and it is the sort of thing that has made Germany the world's fourth biggest arms exporter.

"At present we are building submarines for the Greek navy, the Portuguese navy and for the (South) Korean navy - and we feel that the interest is still very big," says Juergen Rohweder, of Germany's largest military shipbuilder, HDW.

Economic boost

Germany has strict rules on arms exports, forbidding sales to areas of tension. But this has not stopped the company's warships being delivered worldwide.

"The rules we have in Germany are strict, but the frame in which we are able to deliver is quite clear," said Mr Rohweder. "If we are looking for a contract, we first have to ask our government and, if they give the green light, then we are able to make the contract."

German soldiers might one day find themselves fighting enemies who are using German weapons
Winfried Nachtwei,
Green Party MP
But is the government now more willing than previously to give a green light, even to foreign crisis zones, as a way of boosting Germany's troubled economy?

The latest data, for 2003, show deliveries to Egypt, Israel, India and Indonesia.

Green MP Winfried Nachtwei is concerned about moves to shift Germany's post-war philosophy on arms sales.

"There are interests in the government, and I could name particular ministries, which have a clear interest in relaxing the rules on arms exports," he said.

"They are not bearing in mind wider security concerns: that German soldiers might one day find themselves fighting enemies who are using German weapons. We in the Green Party are against relaxing the rules - we want them to be applied responsibly."

The Leopard II tank has become the latest political battleground in the German debate over arms sales. The government wants to sell 350 surplus Leopards to Turkey.

Worldwide role

A similar plan five years ago led to a huge row with the Green Party, and party leaders have again condemned it this time. But Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer has indicated he may support it.

U 33 submarine in Kiel
The Kiel shipyard builds submarines for Germany and others for export
Meanwhile, the government has also clashed with its own MPs over its proposal to lift the EU arms embargo on China.

Defence analyst Joachim Roder says there is only a change if arms exports conflict with general export policy.

"For instance, if we assess mainland China as one of the major markets, I think the rationale for lifting this ban is to get access to this commercial, civil market," he said.

Mr Roder said Germany's changing international role, with engagements in Kosovo and Afghanistan, could start to affect the debate over arms sales.

"But we're not yet there, like France for instance, that we use arms exports to get influence in a region or with an actor," he added.

Back in Kiel, they are working on oxygen tanks for submarine fuel cells. Nearby, a rack of torpedo tubes is ready to be put into place.

Officials here say they would happily sell to China, but stress that this is a decision for the government. Since World War II, Germany has had a political consensus restricting arms sales.

This is now starting to shift.

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