- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Eighteen persons were charged yesterday in a conspiracy to smuggle grenade launchers, shoulder-fired missiles and other Russian-made weapons from Eastern Europe to the United States, all of which were sold to an arms dealer who claimed to have ties to al Qaeda terrorists.

The dealer, according to law-enforcement authorities, worked as an informant for the FBI and arranged to purchase the weapons from a group of Armenians and South Africans. The suspected gang members used digital cameras to showcase the weapons that they said they could buy from sources in the former Soviet Union.

“Today’s case represents the termination of illegal activity by several arms traffickers … and has disrupted a potential overseas pipeline for dangerous military weaponry to come into the hands of civilians or even terrorists,” said U.S. Attorney David N. Kelley in New York.

“We are now working with our counterparts overseas to secure the weapons and to bring to justice conspirators who may be abroad.”

It was not clear yesterday whether the weapons were being purchased from rogue members of the Russian military or from the black market.

The suspected smugglers were taken into custody yesterday morning and Monday night during FBI raids in New York, California and Florida after a yearlong undercover wiretap investigation. They are accused of preparing to import the weapons, including anti-tank missile systems, into the United States from Eastern Europe.

A criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court in New York charged five of the gang members with conspiring to transport destructive devices and 13 others with weapons trafficking. They also were accused of conspiring to traffic in machine guns and assault weapons and with selling eight such weapons.

The complaint, which was unsealed yesterday, said the informant met two of the suspected conspirators, Artur Solomonyan, 26, and Christiaan Dewet Spies, 33, on several occasions in New York to discuss the weapons deals.

Mr. Solomonyan is an Armenian national who lives in New York and Los Angeles, and Mr. Spies, a South African national, is said to be living in New York. They were taken into custody at a Manhattan hotel after meeting one last time with the informant to finalize plans before leaving the United States to obtain the weapons.

The complaint said the informant, an explosives expert, was contacted by a man who said he had access to weapons from the former Soviet Union and thought the informant was in a position to find a buyer. During the next year, the complaint said the informant purchased eight assault weapons in locations across the country.

Some of the digital pictures that were taken by the sellers included anti-tank missiles, a Russian missile launcher and a recoilless anti-tank rifle, authorities said. More than 15,000 conversations between the suspected sellers and the informant were recorded by investigators.

Authorities said Mr. Solomonyan and Mr. Spies each face 30 years in prison if convicted.

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