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France halts arms sale, tear gas to Egypt

France halts arms sale, tear gas to Egypt
An Egyptian soldier sleeps on an army tank in Cairo's Tahrir Square on February 7, 2011 on the 14th day of protests calling for the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak. UPI | License Photo

PARIS, Feb. 7 (UPI) -- France has suspended the sale of arms and riot police equipment to Egypt, the government in Paris has announced.

It remains unclear how much the move will impact Egypt, gripped by weeks of anti-government demonstrations.

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Still, French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said the decision had been taken Jan. 27, the daily Le Monde reported.

The daily said that shipment of riot-control gear, including tear gas, had been halted to Egypt two days prior, when the rioting against the regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak began. Local reports said the gear remained under the control of France's custom authorities.

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The United States is Egypt's largest arms supplier, delivering $4.8 billion in weaponry to the country in from 2005-08.

French Socialist opposition leaders recently challenged the Cairo's decision to continue to exporting weapons and riot gear to Tunisia after the uprising there, which eventually forced longtime president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali to flee.

French Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie stirred controversy last month when she suggested that France could train Tunisian police to maintain order more efficiently. Her remark capped the killing of unarmed protesters by police in Tunisia.

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To allay criticism, French President Nicolas Sarkozy stepped in, saying her remarks had been misunderstood and that the situation in Tunisia had been "underestimated."

In remarks by Fillon this week, the prime minister confirmed that French permits had been granted for exports to Tunisia, France's former colony in North Africa, by the defense, interior and foreign ministries in December and January but none of them were exported.

Even if they weren't sent, critics in Paris condemned the government.

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In a letter to Fillon seeking information as to why the authorizations were ever approved, the opposition leader, Jean-Marc Ayrault, said that the last delivery was blocked by Customs Jan. 14 -- the day Ben Ali fled office.

France has long been chided of turning a blind eye to Ben Ali's iron-fist regime of 23 years. Shortly after the protests began in Tunisia, Arab immigrants in France took to the street in solidarity with anti-Ben Ali demonstrators.

In recent months, the U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency said it was prepared to consider a rash of foreign military sales to Egypt, including the transfer of anti-tank missiles.

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The government of Egypt has also requested anti-ship missiles, engine upgrades for its fleet of F-16 jet fighters and Fast Missile Craft worth an estimated $1.18 billion.

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It remains unclear what the fate of those plans will be.

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