SAF vehicle seizure: Shipping firm APL had used Hong Kong as transit point without issues, says Army Chief

Armoured vehicles belonging to the Singapore military are seen covered with tarpaulin at a customs and excise facility in Hong Kong on Nov 25, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

SINGAPORE - The shipping firm that transported the nine Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) armoured vehicles which were seized in Hong Kong last week had previously used the city as a transit point without encountering any issues, said Singapore's Army Chief on Tuesday (Nov 29).

Major-General Melvyn Ong said the SAF has engaged APL to transport military equipment since the 1990s. It also uses other shipping firms.

Hong Kong Customs officials had seized the nine Terrex Infantry Carrier Vehicles and related equipment from an APL container ship last Wednesday (Nov 23). The vessel was bound for Singapore after a military exercise in Taiwan.

Speaking to reporters on the sidelines of an event to test the Aerostat system - a radar-equipped balloon - on Tuesday, Maj-Gen Ong said Hong Kong is a common international port of call used by many military forces. There was "nothing unnatural" in APL using Hong Kong as a transit point, he said.

On Saturday, a report by Hong Kong's FactWire news agency said the APL container ship had docked in Xiamen in mainland China before transiting in Hong Kong.

It said the Hong Kong Customs and Excise Department was tipped off by its mainland counterparts about the nine SAF armoured vehicles, leading to their seizure in Hong Kong.

The report said APL did not have the "approval notice" for military vehicles.

Asked if APL had done the necessary paperwork for the shipment, Maj-Gen Ong said the SAF is still trying to seek confirmation on this, as well as clarify why the armoured vehicles were detained.

The shipping firm - APL in this case - is responsible for ensuring all regulatory requirements are met, he added.

The SAF conducts overseas training in a dozen or so territories and hires commercial shippers to transport military equipment to and from Singapore.

Maj-Gen Ong said commercial shipping is the most cost-effective means of transporting large equipment for overseas training exercises.

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The Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) and Government will start proceedings to recover the armoured vehicles seized in Hong Kong once the reasons for their detention are made clear, said Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen.

China has made representation to Singapore over the seizure.

On Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Singapore should "strictly abide by the laws of Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR), and cooperate with the SAR government on all necessary follow-ups".

"The Chinese government has always firmly opposed countries that have diplomatic ties with China to have any form of official exchanges with Taiwan, including military exchanges and cooperation," he said at a regular media briefing in Beijing.

"We asked that the Singapore Government strictly abide by the one-China principle," he added.

After the seizure, the SAF sent a team to Hong Kong and Singapore's Defence Ministry said the Terrex ICVs have been moved to a secure area with access control.

Hong Kong Customs authorities have said all vessels must fully declare all cargo on board before docking at Hong Kong's port.

While cargo in transit that remains on the ship at all times does not require an import or export licence, a spokesman for the city's Customs and Excise Department said such a licence will be required for "certain type of strategic commodities".

Maj-Gen Ong reiterated that the cargo had "no ammunition or sensitive equipment on board".

He said the SAF only specifies shipping routes for sensitive cargo such as ammunition. Commercial firms decide on what route to take when transporting general equipment, he added.

The Terrex Infantry Carrier Vehicles, designed and made in Singapore, can carry 13 soldiers and travel across rugged terrain at a top speed of 105kmh.

The eight-wheelers link ground troops to their commanders at headquarters and the SAF's other fighting machines such as Leopard tanks and Apache attack helicopters.

Its remote-controlled machine guns can take down targets 800m away and spit out bullets at 350 rounds a minute.

The SAF's next overseas military training exercise, Thunder Warrior, will take place in January in New Zealand.

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