10 Feb 2016

Russian experts arrive in Fiji for weapons handover

9:07 am on 10 February 2016

Twenty Russian soldiers have arrived in Fiji to help with the transfer of a large consignment of Russian weapons for the Fiji military.

The arrival of the soldiers, understood to be weapons experts, comes with the landing in Suva last month of at least 20 containers of arms and equipment from Russia.

Military officials have confirmed the consignment incudes small arms, ammunition, military trucks and training equipment, also mobile mechanical workshops to be used in disasters.

There are also reports of a helicopter among the equipment.

Both the Fiji and Russian governments say the consignment is destined for Fiji's UN peacekeepers.

Russian media report about arms delivery for Fiji forces on UN peace keeping duty

Russian media report about arms delivery for Fiji forces on UN peace keeping duty Photo: Tass

Fiji's military chief Rear Admiral Vilame Naupoto told the Fiji Sun the peacekeepers needed new arms because they were operating in volatile areas and their weapons were outdated.

A Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said they have been supplied at the official request of Fiji and will be used by the Fijian armoured infantry battalion, which is part of the UN Disengagement Observer Force based in the Golan Heights.

Russian miliitary experts have speculated the Fijians are getting some of the latest Russian weaponry, including the export version of the Kalashnikov assault rifle, which uses NATO-standard ammunition.

An official ceremony is planned for this month to hand over the weapons.

There has been concern in Fiji at secrecy surrounding the transfer.

When the shipment arrived in Suva last month, the Fiji Labour Party said it was a secret deal while the parliamentary opposition said the transaction was illegal because it did not go through parliament for approval.

Opposition MPs questioned the Minister for Defence Timoci Natuva on the arrangement in Parliament on Tuesday.

Mr Natuva told parliament the deal was signed with the Russians in 2013 and there was no necessity for it to be announced in the House.

"Shifting arms and ammunition across the world is a safety ... it goes through a safety process. You don't have to go around calling (out) to people that we are providing ammunition for Fiji," he said.

To a question on why the consignment was not listed as aid in the 2016 budget, Mr Natuva said the finalisation of the shipment was made after the budget was published.

Fiji's Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama pays respects at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow during his visit to Russia in 2013.

Fiji's Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama pays respects at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow during his visit to Russia in 2013. Photo: Supplied

Fiji has been forging stronger links with China, Russia, and India under its Look North policy after it felt abandoned by traditional partners like New Zealand and Australia after the 2006 coup.

Some analysts say Russia's interest in Fiji is part of Russia's desire to restore itself as a maritime power and coincides with increasing activity by Russian fleets in the Pacific.

Russia's foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said Russia wanted better cooperation with Asia Pacific countries as part of the development of its own far east and that even extends to the islands of the Pacific.

A security analyst Paul Buchanan from 36th Parallel Assessments said there is potential the shipment could have dual usage.

"Dual use refers to the fact that they could well be used by Fijian peacekeepers in hostile environments abroad but they can also be used as forms of crowd control on the local population.

"And if reports are true that tear gas and other non-lethal munitions were part of this shipment, then the opposition has some reason to be concerned that not all of these arms will be directed to the peacekeepers."

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