KIEV, Ukraine, March 18 -- Ukrainian weapons dealers smuggled 18 nuclear-capable cruise missiles to Iran and China during the rule of former president Leonid Kuchma, prosecutors said Friday. The missiles have the range to reach Israel and other U.S. allies in the region.
The Kh-55 missiles were smuggled out of the former Soviet republic four years ago, the prosecutor general's office said in a statement. The missiles, which can strike targets 1,860 miles away, were sold illegally, according to the statement.
Officials loyal to former Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma have been implicated in the weapons sales.
The Associated Press reported on Feb. 4 that a government probe into illicit weapons sales by officials loyal to Kuchma had led to secret indictments or arrests of at least six arms dealers accused of selling nuclear-capable missiles to Iran and China.
On Friday, prosecutors confirmed that legal proceedings had begun in the case but did not say how many people were implicated or whether charges had been filed against them. The Kh-55, known in the West as the AS-15, is designed to carry a nuclear warhead with a 200-kiloton yield.
The missiles allegedly sold to Iran were unarmed. The United States and other Western nations have accused Iran of trying to develop nuclear weapons, an allegation its government denies.
Iran does not operate long-range bombers, but military experts say that its Soviet-built Su-24 strike aircraft could be adapted to launch the missiles from the air.
China is a declared nuclear weapons state. In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry officials were not available for comment Friday.
The official said the investigation into alleged illicit arms dealing began quietly more than a year ago, when Kuchma was in office. Viktor Yushchenko, who succeeded Kuchma in January after a bitter election campaign, has promised to investigate illicit weapons-dealing, including a U.S. allegation that Kuchma approved the sale of a sophisticated Kolchuga radar system to Iraq despite U.N. sanctions against the government of Saddam Hussein. Kuchma denied the allegations.
On Feb. 25, a top defense official ordered the military to take an inventory of all military weaponry and equipment in Ukraine after two anti-aircraft missile systems were discovered missing from a military depot.