Lagos, Nigeria (UPI) Nov 15, 2010
Nigerian authorities said they found more evidence that Iran was behind a large shipment of arms, including rockets, uncovered at the country's largest port Oct. 26.
The ultimate destination of the weapons remains a mystery, although Israel says they were destined for Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip via a new Iranian arms pipeline through Africa.
However, Nigerian authorities are concerned that the weapons were destined for Nigeria by political figures who seek to destabilize the country if they are defeated in general and presidential elections scheduled for early 2011.
If that proves to be the case, it would mark a major Iranian intervention in oil-rich West Africa that could impact on U.S. oil supplies. Iran already is involved clandestine operations in Sudan and Egypt.
Nigeria is grappling with a simmering insurgency in its southern oil fields and Christian-Muslim fighting in the central region as the potentially divisive election battle between northern and southern rivals.
The arms found in 13 containers included 107mm rockets, 120mm, 80mm and 60mm mortars and small arms ammunition.
The containers, marked construction materials, had been loaded in the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas. That's a major base for Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps which provides weapons and training for the Shiite Hezbollah organization in Lebanon and aids the Palestinian Hamas group in the Gaza Strip.
The shipment arrived in Lagos, Nigeria's business capital, in July but wasn't uncovered until Nigerian security agents opened the sealed containers.
Officials said two Revolutionary Guard officers had organized the shipment through a Tehran company called International Trading and General Construction. Official documents identified them as Azimi Agajany and Sayyed Akbar Tahmaesebi. Iran's Foreign Ministry had endorsed their visa applications.
Nigerian officials said they believe the men are holed up in the Iranian Embassy in Abuja, Nigeria's administrative capital.
Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki flew to Lagos Thursday to discuss the arms shipment with Nigerian leaders, which violated U.N. sanctions banning all Iranian exports of arms, direct or indirect.
But the Iranians have been smuggling arms to its proxies for years. Here are some of the shipments that were intercepted:
On Jan. 3, 2002, the Israeli navy seized a small freighter, the Karine-A, in the Red Sea bound for Egypt. It carried 50 tons of arms provided by Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps and destined for the Iranian-backed Hezbollah organization in Lebanon.
The cargo aboard the Karine-A, which had sailed from Bandar Abbas, included 122mm and 107mm rockets, 120mm mortars Sagger and LAW anti-tank missiles, anti-tank mines and thousands of AK-47 assault rifles. That shipment included weapons, such as the mortars, that were also found in the consignment uncovered in Lagos.
In December 2003, the Revolutionary Guards ran an airlift of weapons to Hezbollah through Syria, Iran's key Arab ally and a supporter of Hezbollah, under cover of humanitarian aid to the earthquake-battered Iranian city of Bam.
In May 2007, Turkish authorities uncovered an Iranian airlift of mortar shells, light weapons, ammunition and rocket launchers headed for Hezbollah from Iran, Turkey's eastern neighbor.
On Jan. 29, 2009, a U.S naval task force in the Gulf of Aden intercepted a Russian cargo vessel, the Monchegorsk, registered in Cyprus. It had been chartered by Iran's state-owned Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Line. Its cargo included artillery charges, high-explosive propellant for anti-tank weapons and items related to 125mm armor-piercing guns that were destined for Syria, supposedly for delivery to Hezbollah.
In January and February 2009, Sudanese government officials in Khartoum said two convoys of trucks, supposedly carrying Iranian weapons, were destroyed in airstrikes apparently carried out by the Israeli air force.
The arms reportedly carried by the convoys hit in the north Sudanese desert had been transported from Bandar Abbas across the Red Sea to Sudan for overland delivery to Hamas in Gaza.
On Nov. 4, 2009, the Israeli navy intercepted the German-owned freighter Francop off Cyprus carrying 300 tons of arms -- including 3,000 Katyusha rockets and 9,000 mortar shells -- bound for Syria, presumably for delivery to Hezbollah.
On Jan. 19, 2010, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a Hamas chieftain who was the group's top arms procurer, was assassinated in Dubai where he was setting up a weapons deal with Iran. Authorities blamed Israel's intelligence service, the Mossad, for the killing.
earlier related report
"A private company which had sold conventional defence weapons to another country in West Africa had transferred the shipment via Nigeria which raised some doubts with relevant officials," Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki told reporters.
Mottaki said an Iranian national who was in Nigeria as the representative of the company "had offered explanations (to Nigerian authorities) and I believe the misunderstanding has been cleared up."
He did not specify whether the firm was Iranian.
On Friday Nigeria threatened to report Iran to the UN Security Council if the arms shipment, which included rockets and grenades, violated sanctions over its sensitive nuclear programme.
Iran is under four sets of UN sanctions for pursuing the programme, which the West suspects is cover for a drive for a nuclear weapon, a charge Tehran denies.
Nigeria had backed the latest round of UN sanctions against the Islamic republic on June 9.
Nigerian security agents last month intercepted 13 containers discharged from the vessel CMA CGM Everest at the country's busiest port of Apapa in the economic hub of Lagos.
Shipping firm CMA CGM said the containers had been loaded and sealed in Iran by an Iranian businessman who does not appear on an international list of prohibited traders.
CMA CGM, which is based in France, said the shipment was loaded in Bandar Abbas, a southern port city of Iran, and discharged in Lagos in July.
But some time last month the shipper sought to have the containers reloaded and sent to Gambia, a tiny West African country wedged inside Senegal, according to the firm.
Nigeria's intelligence agency said it had been monitoring the shipment, which was disguised as building materials, before it arrived in the country.
It also said the shipment's destination was Nigeria, and "any argument that the cargo came into the country by mistake is false".
The intended recipient and the clearing agent have been arrested, the agency said.
The Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) meanwhile cancelled a friendly that had been due to be held in Tehran on Wednesday, football authorities from both countries said.
"The NFF wishes to regrettably announce the postponement of its planned international friendly with the Iranian national team," it said in a statement.
"The reason was due to the non availability of key players that pulled out from participating in the international friendly at the last minute."
Iran's football chief Ali Kafashian earlier said NFF had "apologised for this cancellation."
"We must and will claim compensation for the cancellation of this match," Kafashian was quoted as saying by the ISNA news agency.
Nigeria had said late last month that it would bring a 20-man squad to Tehran for the game, including 13 players who ply their trade in European leagues.
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