NEW YORK, March 15 -- U.S. authorities charged 18 people in an alleged scheme to smuggle grenade launchers, shoulder-fired missiles and other Russian military weapons into the United States, officials announced Tuesday.
The arrests resulted from a yearlong investigation in which an FBI informant posed as an arms buyer with ties to al Qaeda.
The alleged plot involved Russian antitank guns such as those pictured above.
The case, which took investigators to South Africa, Armenia and the Republic of Georgia, included wiretaps on seven phones and intercepts of more than 15,000 calls, according to prosecutors, the FBI and police.
The informant, an explosives expert, 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 could find a willing buyer, federal prosecutors said.
Using a digital camera, 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 in Armenia, showed antitank missiles, a Russian missile launcher and an antitank rifle, among other weapons, officials said.
Seventeen of the 18 people charged were in custody Tuesday, arrested in New York, Los Angeles or Florida, authorities said. Prosecutors alleged that the defendants were preparing to import the weapons, including antitank 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 defendants Artur Solomonyan and Christiaan Dewet Spies on several occasions in New York to discuss the weapons deals.
Solomonyan, an Armenian citizen who lives in New York and Los Angeles, and Spies, a South African citizen who lives 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, each would face a prison term of up to 30 years.