Britain approved the export of sniper rifles to Libya just months before Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s troops began killing protesters.
Some protesters were wounded when the regime clamped down on opposition
An export licence was granted to let “a small quantity” of long-range weapons be shipped out in November for exhibition or testing.
Four licences were approved for the rifles, along with assault rifles and semi-automatic handguns, with cleaning kits.
They were signed off by officials in the Department for Business, but it is unclear whether ministers were involved in the decision.
Business Secretary Vince Cable said: “It is essential to stop arms exports where this could be used to suppress human rights and democratic protests and also fuel regional conflict.”
These [licences] included four licences covering small quantities of sniper rifles, assault rifles, machine guns, semi automatic pistols, and cleaning kit for exhibition purposes only.
Department for Business spokesperson
He said he was “certainly surprised” about the export licences, particularly in the case of sniper rifles, adding: “We are where we are and have to act correctly from here.”
The horrific wounds among Libyan demonstrators, including limbs being ripped off, are consistent with the impact of a high-velocity round from a sniper rifle.
A spokesperson from the Department for Business (BIS) said: “There are a significant number of extant licences permitting the temporary export only of the equipment concerned – in most cases for display at an industry exhibition in November 2010.
“These included four licences covering small quantities of sniper rifles, assault rifles, machine guns, semi automatic pistols, and cleaning kit for exhibition purposes only.
“The exporters are required to return the goods to the UK, usually within 12 months of the date of issue of the licence, and to notify BIS of their safe return. BIS are contacting the companies concerned to ensure compliance.”
Vince Cable speaks at CBI conference
Vince Cable said he was “surprised” about the export licences
Last week, the department suspended export licences to Bahrain and Libya after concern at attacks on protesters.
Labour has called on the Government to freeze Col Gaddafi’s overseas assets.
Shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander said an agreement on sanctions should be pursued via the European Union.
He said: “The Government appeared slow to act on freezing assets misappropriated from the Egyptian people.
“They should now be urgently seeking agreement in Europe to freeze assets of the Libyan regime.”
The Treasury said the Government could freeze assets owned by a foreign leader but only after a United Nations or EU vote to impose sanctions, a request from the country involved or a Home Office decision that action was needed to prevent terrorism against Britons.