Dozens of secondhand Leopard 1 tanks that once belonged to Belgium have been bought by a major European country for the Ukrainian army fighting Russia, according to the arms trader who sold them.
Freddy Versluys, CEO of the private defence company OIP Land Systems, told the Guardian that he sold 49 tanks to another European government, which he could not name due to a confidentiality clause. He said he also could not disclose the price. Versluys added it could be up to six months before they were on the battlefield in Ukraine.
Versluys previously bought 50 Leopard 1 tanks for €37,000 each (about £29,600) that the Belgian government decommissioned in 2014 as part of a wider trend among western countries of cutting defence spending.
A source with direct knowledge of the deal said that the tanks were bought by a “major German defence player”.
Germany’s Handelsblatt newspaper reported on Tuesday evening that the buyer was arms maker Rheinmetall which planned to prepare most of them for export to Ukraine. The company and the German defence ministry did not comment.
The German-made Leopards were at the centre of a public spat earlier this year after Belgian defence minister Ludivine Dedonder said it considered buying the tanks but accused the firm of trying to make a “huge profit” from the sale. Versluys at the time denied that the Belgian government had approached him.
The clash underlined a predicament faced by western governments trying to find weapons for Ukraine after more than a year of intense warfare – arms they discarded as obsolete are now in high demand, and often owned by private companies.
“The fact that they leave our company proves that we asked for a fair market price and someone was more than happy to take them,” Versluys said in a post on LinkedIn on Tuesday, accompanied by a picture of tanks next to a bottle of Ukrainian vodka.
“I am glad they will finally join the fight for freedom,” the post added.
Versluys, who previously spent nine years working for the Belgian army, said the tanks were now being transported to a factory for a substantial overhaul.
He added that over a dozen tanks would be used for spare parts while the rest would be repaired. In a previous interview with the Guardian, Versluys said that it could take months and up to €1m in renovation costs for each tank to be ready for use in Ukraine.
Several of Kyiv’s western allies agreed earlier this year to send modern Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine and also to send older Leopard 1 models.
The Leopard 1, which is from the 1960s, is lighter and less powerful than the newer Leopard 2 tanks. The models sold by Versluys were last upgraded in the 1990s.
A spokesperson for the Belgian defence ministry declined to comment on the sale of the tanks.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the subsequent unprecedented western military support to Kyiv, has led to a spike in demand for heavy weaponry.
With EU countries’ stocks of weapons severely depleted, countries have been turning to private firms like OIP.
Versluys previously sold 46 M113 light armoured vehicles to the UK, which then transferred them to Ukraine as part of a military package.
Source : The Guardian