WikiLeaks published the first of nearly 2.5 million emails relating to Syria on Thursday, warning that the information would prove embarrassing not only to the repressive regime of President Bashar al-Assad but also to its international opponents.
Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks Photo: AP
By Nick Squires, Rome
Dubbed "The Syria Files", they encompass the period from August 2006 to March 2012 and will reveal "how the West and Western companies say one thing and do another", the whistle-blowing campaigning group claimed.
They will be released over the next two months and published in partnership with newspapers around the world, including in Italy, France, Spain, Lebanon and Germany.
"The material is embarrassing to Syria, but it is also embarrassing to Syria's opponents," said Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, who is holed up in the Ecuadorean embassy in London seeking political asylum in an attempt to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he has been accused of sexual assault.
"It helps us not merely to criticise one group or another, but to understand their interests, actions and thoughts. It is only through understanding this conflict that we can hope to resolve it."
The first tranche appeared to show that Finmeccanica, an Italian defence giant with extensive interests in the UK, supplied communications equipment and expertise about helicopters to the Syrian regime, even after it had launched a violent crackdown on peaceful protests that began in March 2011.
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The leaked emails were published by L'Espresso, an Italian news magazine and one of WikiLeaks' media partners.
They appeared to show that Selex Elsag, a subsidiary of Finmeccanica, was selling radio communications equipment worth 40 million euros to the Syrian police in May 2011 – the same month that the European Union imposed an embargo on the regime, prohibiting the export of weapons and equipment that could be used for internal repression.
The Tetra radio equipment, including 500 hand-held VS3000 radios, was apparently destined for police deployed to a suburb of Damascus, Muadamia.
The emails also appeared to show that as recently as February this year – when the anti-Assad revolt had turned into a virtual civil war – engineers from Selex Elsag travelled to Damascus to give training on the use of the communications technology, including how it could be installed in helicopters.
The Syrian regime later asked to be supplied encryption technology for the radio system, but Finmeccanica said it would have to refer the matter to the Italian government.
The sight of Syrian helicopter gunships attacking rebel strongholds has prompted international outrage in recent months.
The death toll from the conflict stands at around 16,500, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
A spokesman for Rome-based Finmeccanica, which is Britain's second-biggest defence supplier, told The Daily Telegraph that the company was trying to verify the authenticity of the emails and would issue an official statement.
The defence company employs more than 10,000 people in the 15 factories and offices it runs in the UK, from Newquay and Yeovil in the south-west to Edinburgh.
Its British operations are run by Sir Kevin Tebbit, a former director of GCHQ, the UK's signal intelligence agency, and a former permanent secretary at the Ministry of Defence.
The 2.4 million emails come from Syrian ministries, including foreign affairs, finance and presidential affairs, WikiLeaks said, without explaining how it obtained them.
The number of files is eight times greater than that of "Cablegate" – the massive cache of confidential US diplomatic cables which WikiLeaks released in 2010, embarrassing the American and other governments and shedding light on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.