Dozens of second-hand Leopard 1 tanks that once belonged to Belgium have been bought by another European country for Ukrainian forces fighting Russia’s invasion, according to the arms trader who conducted the deal.
The German-made Leopards were at the centre of a public spat earlier this year after Belgian Defence Minister Ludivine Dedonder said the government had explored buying back obsolete tanks to send to Ukraine but had been quoted unreasonable prices.
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The clash highlighted 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.
Freddy Versluys, CEO of defence company OIP Land Systems, said on Tuesday that he bought the old tanks from the Belgian government more than five years ago.
He told Reuters he had now sold all 50 tanks to another European government, which he could not name due to a confidentiality clause. He said he also could not disclose the price he was paid for the Leopards.
Several of Kyiv’s Western allies agreed earlier this year to send modern Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine as well as older Leopard 1 models.
Germany’s Handelsblatt newspaper reported on Tuesday evening that arms maker Rheinmetall had acquired the Leopard 1 tanks and would prepare most of them for export to Ukraine.
The company declined to comment.
“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, accompanied by a picture of tanks next to a bottle of Ukrainian vodka.
He said the tanks were now being transported to a factory for a substantial overhaul. Some of the tanks would be used for spare parts while others would be repaired, he said.
He estimated it could be four to six months before they are on the battlefield in Ukraine.
Handelsblatt said the 50 tanks would be refurbished at Rheinmetall factories in Germany and that 30 overhauled models would be made ready for export. It did not name any government as being behind the deal.
The German defence ministry had no immediate comment.
The Leopard 1 was made by the German firm Krauss-Maffei, starting in the 1960s. It is lighter than the Leopard 2 and has a different type of main gun. 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.