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Senegal cuts ties with Iran over weapons shipment

Senegal said Wednesday it will cut diplomatic ties with Iran after an investigation that showed that a seized Iranian arms shipment was intended for rebels fighting Senegalese troops.

The move is the latest escalation between the Senegalese government and Iran. The arms shipment was discovered in Nigeria in October. When an investigation showed the arms were bound for Gambia-based rebels who have previously attacked Senegalese soldiers, Senegal pulled its ambassador from Iran.

After the deaths of three Senegalese soldiers over the weekend in Senegal's disputed Casamance region, the country is severing all ties, said Foreign Minister Madicke Niang.

"We have seen the report of the chiefs of staff of the army that says the rebels are well-armed and have sophisticated weapons. These arms did not fall from the sky," Niang said. "Reliable sources consider that these arms came from Iran. Senegal cannot continue to maintain relations with a country that is working to destabilize it."

Senegal was one of the few countries that reached out to the government of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who last visited Dakar in November 2009.

The streets of Dakar's capital are awash in the yellow "Samand," an inexpensive Iranian car that is assembled at a factory in Senegal through a bilateral agreement between the two countries.

Ahmadinejad has made several trips to meet Senegal President Abdoulaye Wade, and the latter used his access to the Iranian leader to help negotiate the release of an American hiker who was accused of espionage.

Niang said that during a Feb. 19 meeting between Wade and Iran's foreign affairs minister, Iran's minister said Iran has delivered large lots of arms to Gambia multiple times and that the cargo seized in Nigeria contained munitions destined for Gambia.

"The Iranian minister recognized having delivered the arms and also, at the last minute, that these cargo were munitions," Niang said. "We have considered that all of this should not have been done without informing Senegal."

It is unclear what this break in diplomatic relations means for Iran's economic interests in Senegal, including the car plant outside Dakar and Iran's announcement last month to contribute $200 million in joint-economic cooperation, some of which was intended for Senegal's ailing energy sector.

That deal was struck in January after Senegal briefly returned its ambassador to Iran. At that time, Niang said Senegal had accepted Iran's explanation about the arms shipment.

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Associated Press writer Sadibou Marone contributed to this report.