Saudi arms scandal evicts Swedish defence minister
Swedish Defence Minister Sten Tolgfors has quit, the prime minister said Thursday, following weeks of controversy over revelations Sweden planned to help Saudi Arabia build an arms factory.
"I have today, upon request from Sten Tolgfors, decided to relieve him (of his duties)," Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt told a news conference.
Reinfeldt stressed that Tolgfors, who has served as defence minister since 2007, had begun hinting months ago that he wanted to leave, but acknowledged that media focus on the weapons factory scandal had sped up his exit.
"The probe and the questions around this issue will continue... and that is of course a good thing," Reinfeldt said, adding that Tolgfors would maintain his seat in parliament while Infrastructure Minister Catharina Elmsaeter-Svaerd would temporarily take over the defence portfolio.
Public broadcaster Swedish Radio revealed earlier this month that the Swedish Defence Research Agency (FOI) had secret plans since 2007 to help Saudi Arabia build a plant for the production of anti-tank weapons.
Part of the so-called Project Simoom involved, according to Swedish Radio, FOI's alleged creation of a shell company called SSTI to handle dealings with Saudi Arabia, in order to avoid any direct links to FOI and the government.
FOI director general Jan-Olof Lind said last week he had reported "a suspected crime" following an internal review, and Swedish prosecutor Agneta Hilding Qvarnstroem opened a preliminary investigation into the affair.
Sweden has in the past sold weapons to Saudi Arabia, but classified government documents say Project Simoom "pushes the boundaries of what is possible for a Swedish authority," the radio said when it broke the story on March 6.
The story has dominated Swedish headlines since then, with numerous politicians and public figures critical of Sweden's plans to provide weapons help to a country they describe as a "dictatorship," and calls for Tolgfors to resign.
Under pressure to come clean, Tolgfors admitted on March 9 he knew of FOI's plans to help Riyadh build the factory and of the shell company, but has insisted no Swedish laws had been broken.
"When it comes to the past weeks' debate on Saudi Arabia, I have nothing more to add," Tolgfors told Thursday's news conference.
The 45-year-old father of two young children insisted he had already planned to resign, among other things for family reasons, but that "media attention in recent weeks has facilitated and accelerated my decision".
Opposition parties were quick to hail Tolgfors for his decision to go.
"I expect that Sten Tolgfors despite his resignation will take part in questioning by parliament's constitutional committee to help cast light on what has happened," Urban Ahlin, a spokesman for the main opposition Social Democrats, told the TT news agency.
Last year, Sweden exported defence material worth a total of 13.9 billion kronor ($2.05 billion, 1.56 billion euros), and Saudi Arabia was the second-biggest buyer, according to TT.