Tung faces US grilling over carriers

PUBLISHED : Friday, 31 March, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 31 March, 2000, 12:00am

The chance discovery of five armoured personnel carriers is likely to heighten concerns in Washington over Hong Kong's role as an arms shipment centre for the mainland, analysts said yesterday.

The discovery comes on the eve of Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa's visit to the United States next week where he is expected to face questions over Hong Kong's commitment to stopping illegal weapons transfers.

Suspicions that Beijing has been using the SAR for the illicit shipment of military and high-technology materials was raised in a report by Congress Republican Christopher Cox.

Customs officers patrolling Kwai Chung container terminal found one of the heavily armour-plated vehicles on a dock and four others on the deck of a Panamanian-registered ship yesterday.

Democratic Party legislator James To Kun-sun called on mainland authorities to investigate who was behind the shipment to ensure Hong Kong's image was not hurt.

'It would show they are determined not to let Hong Kong be used as a transshipment centre for strategic commodities,' he said.

Customs officials refused to release the name of the consignee or the Ukrainian shipper of the container vessel, saying investigations were continuing.

The manifest showed the armoured personnel carriers were destined for a port in Tianjin aboard the same ship but investigators wanted to find out why one vehicle had been unloaded, said Cheung Sai-yan, head of the Customs' trade licensing investigation bureau.

Taiwanese military analyst Andrew Yang Nien-dzu, who monitors the mainland defence forces, said they could have been destined ultimately for North Korea, which has been buying equipment from Ukraine, or a front company acting for the PLA's research and development arm.

The mainland does not have any of the eight-wheel BTR-70 carriers - built in the former Soviet Union during the 1980s - in service and manufactures its own personnel carriers.

Mr Yang, secretary-general of the Chinese Council for Advanced Policy Studies, said: 'The Chinese have had problems building their own APCs and they might want to look at the Russian designs.' Mr To, chairman of the Legislative Council's security panel, said the 'chance' discovery allowed officials to prove their determination to Washington to enforce the law rather than rely on the US or other nations for information which in the past had led to most seizures.

The BTR-70, which is equipped with a 14.5mm gun and carries two crew plus nine troops, has been succeeded by a later model.