- Rights groups pressure the South Korean government to halt shipments to Bahrain
- The move comes after months of campaigning against the use of tear gas
- Bahraini authorities say tear gas is necessary to maintain order
- The Bahrain interior ministry says it was not told of the ban by Seoul
South Korea is suspending exports of tear gas canisters to the Gulf island nation of Bahrain amid pressure from human rights groups, an official said Thursday.
"We've decided to suspend (the shipment of tear gas) because of the unstable political situation in Bahrain, requests from human rights groups and civilian deaths," an official with South Korea's state-run Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA), which oversees the country's military trade, said.
"We got requests Dae Kwang Chemical Corporation and another company on whether they can get permission to export the tear gas to Bahrain," the DAPA official said.
"After discussions with the Defense and Foreign Ministries on the issue, we informed the companies to suspend the exports."
The move by Seoul comes after months of campaigning by rights groups who say the Bahraini authorities' misuse of tear gas has led to dozens of deaths as the Shiite majority protests against the Sunni-led government. The authorities have argued that tear gas is necessary to maintain order.
Human rights groups had launched a campaign called Stop The Shipment after leaked government documents appeared to show that Bahrain, a country of 1.3 million people, had ordered around 1.6 million tear gas canisters.
In October, the U.S.-based group Physicians for Human Rights reported that Bahrain's police "weaponized tear gas" had caused the deaths of at least 39 people since February 2011 in an ongoing crackdown on anti-government protests, a claim the government disputes.
Bahrain's Interior Ministry said it had not been informed of any such ban by Seoul.
"Teargas is used by Bahrain's police force only as a necessary and proportionate measure and in public order and riot control situations. It is used entirely in compliance with international law," it said in a statement on Wednesday.
Bahraini and international rights groups welcomed the move.
"I think it's great news and we commend South Korea on the decision they've taken," Bahraini rights activist Maryam al-Khawaja said.
"We're starting with tear gas but we expect to see countries who say they are concerned about human rights stop the sale of all types of weapons to Bahrain."