KIEV, Ukraine – Ukrainian weapons dealers smuggled 18 nuclear-capable cruise missiles to Iran and China four years ago, prosecutors said Friday, revealing new details of a probe that will test the government's commitment to cleaning up corruption critics say flourished during former President Leonid Kuchma's (search) decade in power.
The Associated Press had reported exclusively Feb. 4 that a government probe into lucrat"The proceedings against persons implicated have been forwarded to the Kiev Court of Appeals and are being heard behind closed doors," the statement said.
Spokesman Vyacheslav Astapov named one of the accused, Volodymyr Yevdokimov (search), whom he identified as the director of a cargo company, Ukraviazakaz.
He refused to provide other details, and it was unclear whether other suspects were involved in the proceedings at the court, which handles all sensitive cases.
At least three people were arrested and another three were indicted last year in connection with the illicit arms trade, an intelligence official told the AP on condition of anonymity in February.
Last month, the AP reported that six missiles smuggled out of Ukraine purportedly ended up in Iran and six in China, although export documents known as end-user certificates recorded the final recipient of some 20 Kh55 missiles as Russia's Defense Ministry, according a letter from legislator Hrihoriy Omelchenko to President Viktor Yushchenko (search).
Omelchenko did not say what happened to the eight other missiles. The Kh55, known in the West as the AS-15, is designed to carry a nuclear warhead with a 200-kiloton yield.
The missiles allegedly sold to Iran were unarmed. The United States accuses Iran of trying to develop a nuclear arms program — an allegation Tehran denies.
Iran does not operate long-range bombers but it is believed Tehran could adapt its Soviet-built Su-24 strike aircraft to launch the missile. The missile's range would put Israel and a number of other U.S. allies within reach.
China is a declared nuclear weapons state. In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry officials were not available for comment Friday.
According to Omelchenko, in 2000, a Russian national named Oleg Orlov and a Ukrainian partner identified as E.V. Shilenko "exported 20 Kh55 cruise missiles through a fake contract and end-user certificate" with Russia's state-run arms dealer and with a firm called Progress, which is a daughter company of Ukrspetseksport — Ukraine's weapons exporting agency.
Both men are among eight suspects listed in a 2004 Security Service report Omelchenko cited, and prosecutors indicted them in absentia last year for illegal weapons trading.
Orlov was detained July 13 in the Czech Republic and an extradition procedure is under way to return him to Ukraine for prosecution, the Prosecutor General's office said Friday. Shilenko remains at large; the office said a warrant has been issued for his arrest.
Omelchenko dismissed Friday's statement by prosecutors as a "political trick" by Piskun to keep his post in the face of calls by pro-Yushchenko lawmakers for his resignation, and accused him of keeping information under wraps long after he knew it.
Piskun was chief prosecutor under Kuchma and retained his post after Yushchenko, a Kuchma opponent, came to power in January.
The intelligence official who spoke to the AP last month said the investigation into alleged illicit arms dealing began quietly well over a year ago — during Kuchma's presidency.
But Yushchenko vowed to aggressively pursue the allegations, which included a separate U.S. claim that Kuchma approved the sale of sophisticated Kolchuga radar systems to Saddam Hussein's Iraq despite U.N. sanctions.
Kuchma has denied the allegations, which stem from secret recordings made by a former bodyguard who fled Ukraine after revealing the tapes and now lives in the United States.
Omelchenko said Friday that the recordings suggested illicit weapons deals were made "according to the president's authorization."
"That gives us grounds to say that Kuchma is an accessory of the illegal selling of military property, weapons, including weapons of mass destruction," he said.