By Karine Kalantarian
Armenia on Thursday officially acknowledged its cooperation with U.S. law-enforcement authorities that claim to have smashed a weapons smuggling ring, saying that arrests have been made on Armenian territory as well.
“We are taking relevant measures in connection with that case,” the deputy chief of Armenia’s National Security Service (NSS), Hrachya Harutiunian, told parliament. “We have already made arrests in the Republic of Armenia.”
Harutiunian refused to reveal the number and identity of the detainees or give other details.
U.S. prosecutors announced on Tuesday the arrest of 18 people in New York, Los Angeles and Florida on charges of seeking to smuggle Russian-made heavy weapons into the United States. They said among them are Armenian nationals, including a 26-year-old man, Artur Solomonian.
Harutiunian described Solomonian as the ringleader. “A criminal group made up of 18 persons has really been arrested,” he said. “It is led by a citizen of our republic. Also arrested was his brother who too is a citizen of our republic.”
An NSS statement issued late on Wednesday said Solomonian and his brother Levon were both wanted by the Armenian police for draft evasion. Harutiunian clarified that they left for the U.S. on student exchange programs in 1998 and 2000 respectively.
The NSS spokesman and other law-enforcement officials earlier declined to confirm Yerevan’s involvement in the investigation. President Robert Kocharian's spokesman, Viktor Soghomonian, was quoted by the Associated Press as saying on Wednesday Armenian law-enforcement authorities have no concrete information about weapons smuggling from Armenia and "are interested in investigating and bringing to justice members of this criminal group."
The U.S. authorities say the suspects offered to supply potential buyers with Russian-made grenade launchers, shoulder-fired missiles, machine guns and other assault weapons from Armenia and other former Soviet republics. They allegedly showed an FBI informant pictures of those weapons taken in Armenia.
According to Harutiunian, the FBI confiscated some firearms during the arrests and none of them had Armenian origin. “There is no evidence of any weapons or ammunition actually shipped from Armenia to the United States,” he said.
The weapons mentioned in the U.S. prosecutors’ 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.
(AP-Photolur photo: Russian grenade launchers that were allegedly due to be smuggled into the United States.)