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Belgian arms dealer tangles with minister over tanks for Ukraine

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Belgian arms

TOURNAI, Belgium, Feb 1 (Reuters) – Freddy Versluys doesn’t like being called an arms dealer. But he has a big warehouse full of used tanks for sale.

Standing next to dozens of German-made Leopard 1 tanks and other military vehicles in the cold warehouse in eastern Belgium, Versluys pointed out that he was the CEO of two defense companies with a wide range of skills. activities, such as the manufacture of sensors for spacecraft.

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But buying and selling weapons is also part of his business. And it’s the tanks that have put him in the spotlight in recent days, as he engaged in a public battle with Belgian Defense Minister Ludivine Dedonder over the possibility of sending them to Ukraine.

While other Western nations have pledged in recent weeks to send main battle tanks to help Ukraine repel the Russian invasion, Belgium has not joined this group, for one reason above all: it does not have more tanks. She sold the last of them – a batch of 50 – to the Versluys company more than five years ago.

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When asked why he bought the tanks, Versluys, a silver-haired man in his 60s, said it was his company’s business model – he bought unwanted military equipment in the hope someone else will in the future.

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“There are still countries in the world that have these Leopard 1 tanks. So there is always a possibility either to sell spare parts or to sell additional tanks,” he said.

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But, he added: “Of course it’s a gamble… Maybe tomorrow we’ll have to remove them (or) 10 years later they might still be there.”

Dedonder said the government had explored the idea of ​​buying up tanks to send to Ukraine. But she blasted the quoted prices as “unreasonable” and “extremely high”. Tanks priced between 10 and 15,000 euros each are offered for sale at 500,000 euros, although they are not operational, she said.

The row highlights a predicament facing Western governments as they scramble to find more weapons for Ukraine after almost a year of intense war – the weapons they threw away as obsolete are now in high demand, and many are now in the hands of private companies.

Dedonder did not name Versluys’ company, OIP Land Systems, in his charges. But Versluys is convinced that he is his target. Dedonder declined an interview request.

Versluys took the unusual step of publicly challenging the minister’s claims, offering rare insight into the workings of a company that often prefers to keep a low profile.

Versluys said his company bought all 50 tanks for around 2 million euros and only 33 were serviceable. This would amount to a unit price of 40,000 euros for 50 tanks, or some 60,600 euros for 33.

He said his selling price could range from several hundred thousand to almost a million euros, but that would include refitting the tanks, which he said could be very expensive.

Replacing the system that controls the shots could cost 350,000 euros per tank, replacing the asbestos in the engine could cost 75,000 euros, he said. Each tank had to be assessed individually.

“We still have to consider what their real status is and what we need to spend to make them suitable,” he said.


As part of his public offensive, Versluys gave journalists a tour of his warehouse on the outskirts of the provincial town of Tournai. It looks like a military superstore, filled with rows of Leopard 1 tanks in dusty green and black camouflage and dozens of other military vehicles, as well as shelves full of spare parts and piles of straps.

In its sales pitch, Versluys also points out that the refitted Leopard 1 tanks could be ready for the battlefield in months – much faster than the new models ordered today, which will take years to produce.

The Leopard 1 is the predecessor to the Leopard 2 tanks that Germany, Poland, Finland and other countries agreed last month to send to Ukraine. It is lighter than the Leopard 2 and has a different type of main gun. The models from the Versluys warehouse were last updated in the 1990s.

Yohann Michel, an analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank, said the Leopard 1 tanks would not be as useful on the battlefield as their successors.

But, he said, they could still be useful for taking on older Russian tanks and supporting infantry units, especially if refitted to a high standard.

If Belgium does not buy the tanks, another country could buy them for Kyiv. Versluys said he had discussions with several European governments about this option.

Britain bought 46 infantry fighting vehicles from its company for Ukraine last year and sent engineers who worked around the clock to get them back to working order, Versluys said.

However, any Leopard 1 export would require approval from the Belgian region of Wallonia, where the company is based, and from Berlin, as the tanks were manufactured by the German company KMW.

Versluys is a fluent seller, reeling off the names, model numbers, and prices for many military kit items. He worked as an engineer in the Belgian army before going into business.

Although he doesn’t like the ‘arms dealer’ label, he said the arms trade is better than his reputation: ‘Contrary to what people say, it’s a pretty civilized market’ .

Reporting by Andrew Gray; Editing by Nick Macfie

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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