By Karine Kalantarian
The U.S. government commended Armenian security agencies on Monday for their “active cooperation” in the ongoing investigation into an alleged attempt to smuggle heavy weapons into the United States from the South Caucasus. It also emerged that three men are currently kept under arrest in Armenia in connection with the affair.
“The Armenian authorities are actively cooperating in the investigation and have made several arrests in connection with this case to ensure that no weapons are illegally exported from Armenia,” the U.S. embassy in Yerevan said in a statement.
"The FBI appreciates the professionalism and active cooperation of the Armenian authorities," a senior FBI investigator, Bryan Paarmann, said for his part. "This situation underlines the critical importance all countries must place on safeguarding weapons and dangerous materials. We have to keep them out of the wrong hands.”
“I have already seen that Armenia takes this challenge seriously,” Paarmann told reporters in Yerevan.
The FBI official arrived in Armenia on Friday to probe possible links between the three detainees and 18 individuals arrested in New York, Los Angeles and Florida early last week on charges of seeking to smuggle Russian-made heavy weapons, including shoulder-fired missiles and grenade-launchers.
They were allegedly led by Artur Solomonian, a 26-year-old Armenian citizen wanted in Armenia for draft evasion. Also among the detainees were Solomonian’s brother Levon and several Georgians.
Speaking at a joint news conference with Paarmann, the deputy chief of Armenia’s National Security Service (NSS), Hrachya Harutiunian, said Solomonian and other suspects decided to try smuggle those arms from Armenia after receiving a commissioning order from undercover FBI agents. He said Solomonian contacted a Yerevan-based friend identified as Spartak Yeribekian for that purpose.
“Yeribekian in turn asked a friend of his who commands an artillery unit at one military base, Senior Lieutenant Armen Sargsian, to take pictures of those weapons,” Harutiunian said, adding that the photographs were taken and sent to Solomonian by e-mail on February 23.
The photographs were released by the FBI when news of the arrests was announced last week. The NSS arrested Yeribekian and two other men in the following days. According to Harutiunian, one of them is an Armenian-born former U.S. resident who illegally returned to Armenia in the mid-1990s to escape prosecution in the U.S.
The security official said Sargsian, the artillery officer, is not kept in custody and will likely face disciplinary action instead. He added that the U.S. law-enforcement authorities confiscated small quantities of light weapons from Solomonian and other suspects and that none of them was brought from Armenia.
“No evidence has been discovered to show that any arms were taken out of Armenia and brought to the United States,” confirmed the U.S. embassy statement.
“The photographed weapons remain where they should be. No weapons have disappeared from the military base,” Harutiunian said, declining to specify the unit’s location.