By Karine Kalantarian
Armenian law-enforcement officials declined on Wednesday to admit their involvement in a criminal investigation into an alleged conspiracy to smuggle Russian heavy weapons into the United States from Armenia and other Eastern European countries.
Armenian citizens were reportedly among 18 people arrested and charged on Tuesday with seeking to sell grenade launchers, shoulder-fired missiles, machine guns and other assault weapons to terrorist groups in the U.S.
Only one Armenian, a certain Artur Solomonian, was identified in news reports. Solomonian, 26, and other suspects were reportedly arrested in New York, Los Angeles and Florida a year-long wiretap investigation in which an informer posed as a
weapons trafficker selling arms to terrorists. The potential “buyer” was shown pictures of weapons apparently taken in Armenia, according to the indictment made by U.S prosecutors.
Solomonian and one of the suspects, a South African national, were detained ahead an alleged trip to eastern Europe to buy the items and after a final meeting with the informer. If convicted, the two each face up to 30 years in prison.
The FBI "is currently working with Armenian and Russian authorities to secure the weapons and to arrest the responsible parties abroad," the indictment read.
However, the National Security Service (NSS) in Yerevan, the Armenian successor to the Soviet-era KGB most likely to deal with the FBI, denied any knowledge of the affair. “We heard about the case from the media,” a spokesman told RFE/RL. “Nobody has applied to us for assistance.”
Senior officials at Armenia’s Office of Prosecutor-General also claimed that they are not aware of any joint actions by Armenian and U.S. law-enforcement agencies.
However, the NSS issued a more ambiguous statement later in the day. It revealed that Solomonian and his brother Levon have been wanted by the Armenian police since 2001 for evading compulsory military service. The security agency added that Levon Solomonian is also among the arrested suspects, suggesting that it did communicate with the FBI.
The weapons mentioned in the indictment are used by both the Armenian armed forces and Russian troops stationed in Armenia. In 2001, a group of men were arrested on the Armenian-Georgian border for allegedly trying to smuggle surface-to-air Igla missiles out of Armenia. The shoulder-fired missiles reportedly belonged to the Russian military base.
U.S. law-enforcement officials said that although the FBI informant posed as an Al-Qaeda agent, no connection was established between the accused and any terrorist organization. "These defendants may not have been terrorists themselves, but they've shown transparent willingness to do anything with anybody so long as it generates income for their organization," an FBI agent was quoted by AFP as saying.
(AP-Photolur photo: An anti-tank missile which was allegedly due to be smuggled into the United States.)