- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Ivory Coast’s defense minister was involved in a criminal plot to smuggle weapons from the United States, and other Ivorian officials involved in the conspiracy remain unindicted only because they have diplomatic immunity, a federal prosecutor told a court this week.

The case, which resembles a spy novel plot, was revealed amid fears of fresh violence in the strife-racked West African nation ahead of a long-postponed presidential election scheduled for the end of October.

Nguessan Yao, 55, a colonel in the Ivorian armed forces, was arraigned in U.S. District Court in San Jose, Calif., on Wednesday on charges of trying to export 4,000 9-mm handguns, 200,000 rounds of ammunition and 50,000 tear-gas grenades in violation of U.S. law and a six-year-old U.N. arms embargo against the Ivory Coast.

In opposing bail for Col. Yao, Assistant U.S. Attorney Gary G. Fry told the court that, although his passport had been seized, he posed a flight risk because he was involved in a “conspiracy with the Ivory Coast minister of defense,” Michel Amani.

Mr. Fry added that there were “several other people involved in the case who were not indicted because they have diplomatic immunity.”

No bail was granted, and the hearing was scheduled to resume Friday.

Col. Yao and Michael B. Shor, a Virginia trade consultant who is accused of brokering the deal, are the only two people charged in the case, but court documents mention six other unidentified co-conspirators. Some of them are likely high-level officials in the Ivorian government, including personnel at the country’s embassy in Washington, diplomatic sources said.

Although diplomats generally cannot be charged with criminal offenses, those involved in illegal activity or espionage can be deemed personae non gratae by the countries where they are working.

Neither State Department officials, nor the Ivory Coast Embassy responded to multiple requests for comment.

“People at the highest levels of the Ivorian government knew about this deal as early as September 2009,” James Bevan, head of the U.N. group that monitors the sanctions, told The Washington Times. “They gave us the exact number of weapons and ammunition on order and the name Michael Shor as the supplier.”

He said the monitoring group informed U.S. authorities “as soon as it learned of the deal.”

Bertin Kadet, a senior security adviser to Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo, told reporters in Abidjan last week that the weapons were intended for the country’s security forces to ensure that authorities could keep order in the run-up to the Oct. 31 presidential election.

Mr. Bevan said Mr. Kadet was the Ivory Coast government’s “main negotiator of arms deals before the embargo.”

Opposition leaders in Ivory Coast, where a bloody civil conflict raged from 2002 until a May 2007 peace accord and the deployment of a U.N. peacekeeping mission, say Mr. Gbagbo’s regime plans to use the weapons to keep power by force if he loses at the polls.

There are fears that the exposure of the arms-export plot will increase the chances of violent clashes between the president’s forces and supporters of the former rebel army in the north.

“The timing is very bad,” said Jennifer Cooke, an Africa scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “There is already a lot of mutual suspicion …, and the fact that the government has been fairly openly attempting to breach the sanctions is not a positive, confidence-building development.”

She said the stakes in the presidential election — postponed six times and five years overdue — “could not be higher,” and news of what she called this “audacious” attempted arms buy “can only stoke tensions.”

“Unfortunately, there is a real potential for violence,” she said.

On Tuesday, the U.N. Security Council ordered 500 more peacekeepers to the Ivory Coast and warned the government and the opposition “to ensure calm” before the election. About 8,500 peacekeepers are in the country, which has more than 20 million people.

According to court documents, Mr. Shor was arrested in April and began cooperating with authorities by arranging a meeting between Col. Yao and undercover agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Col. Yao was arrested in August after he had inspected the weapons at a warehouse in New Jersey and after payments totaling $3.8 million had been made into a special bank account set up by the undercover agents.

During the inspection, Col. Yao discussed the need for fake invoices to conceal the true nature of the consignment, saying they should list its contents as solar panels or development equipment, according to the documents.

If convicted, he faces up to 10 years in prison.

The charges against Mr. Shor, who is free on bail, remain sealed, and neither he nor his attorney would comment.

Col. Yao remains in custody, and his attorney did not return a phone call requesting comment.

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