NEW YORK – U.S. authorities charged 18 people in an alleged scheme to smuggle grenade launchers, shoulder-fired missiles and other Russian military weapons (search) into the United States.
The arrests resulted from a yearlong investigation in which an FBI informant posed as an arms buyer who claimed to have ties to Al Qaeda (search).
The case, which took investigators to South Africa, Armenia and the Georgian Republic, also included wiretaps on seven phones and interceptions of more than 15,000 calls, according to prosecutors, the FBI and police.
The informant, an explosives expert, contacted the FBI after he was approached by a man who said he had access to weapons from the former Soviet Union and believed the informant could find a willing buyer, federal prosecutors said.
Using a digital camera, members of the ring, which included Armenians and South Africans, provided pictures of the weapons they said they had available for sale, prosecutors said.
The pictures, apparently taken somewhere in Armenia, showed anti-tank missiles (search), a Russian missile launcher and an anti-tank rifle, among other weapons, officials said.
Seventeen of the 18 people charged were in custody on Tuesday, arrested in New York, Los Angeles or Florida, authorities said. Prosecutors alleged that the defendants were preparing to import the weapons, including anti-tank missile systems, into the country from Eastern Europe.
The FBI is working with Armenian and Russian authorities to secure the weapons, authorities said.
A criminal complaint unsealed in U.S. District Court in Manhattan charged five men with conspiring to transport destructive devices and 13 others with weapons trafficking for their alleged roles in supplying machine-guns and other assault weapons destined to be sold to the informant.
According to the complaint, the informant met two of the defendants, Artur Solomonyan and Christiaan Dewet Spies, on several occasions in New York to discuss the weapons deals.
Solomonyan, an Armenian citizen living in New York and Los Angeles, and Spies, a South African citizen living in New York, were arrested Monday night at a Manhattan hotel after meeting one last time with the informant to finalize their plans before leaving the country to obtain the weapons, prosecutors alleged.
If convicted, the two each face up to 30 years in prison. It was not immediately clear who would represent them in court.