msnbc.com news services
updated 3/15/2005 7:45:31 PM ET 2005-03-16T00:45:31

U.S. authorities on Tuesday charged 18 people in an alleged scheme to smuggle grenade launchers, shoulder-fired missiles and other Russian military weapons into the United States.

They have been charged, among other crimes, with conspiracy, interstate shipment of illegal devices, including machine guns and mines and the illegal possession of those arms, U.S. Attorney David Kelley told reporters.

A government informant essentially posed as an arms broker for terrorists, Kelley said.

The defendants brought AK-47s and an Uzi into the country and delivered them to storage facilities in various locations, Kelley said.

'Broader scheme' emerged
At that point an “even broader scheme” evolved to smuggle heat-seeking SAMs, anti-tank missiles and fully automatic assault rifles, among other weapons, at a cost of more than $2 million, Kelley said.

One defendant suggested he could obtain enriched uranium for use in an attack on the New York subway, Kelley said, but authorities never found any evidence that that was true.

The informant 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, an explosives expert, could find a willing buyer, according to a law enforcement source, who asked to remain anonymous.

Over the following year, the informant purchased eight assault weapons in locations around the country. Using a digital camera provided by the informant, 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, a Russian missile launcher and an anti-tank rifle, among other weapons, officials said.

Cross-border cooperation
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.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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