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29 May, 2009 16:49

International weapons smuggling ring busted

A dozen-strong ring of acting and former military personnel involved in the smuggling of secret equipment has been busted by the Russian customs and counter-intelligence service.

The ring members have been arrested in several simultaneous raids on Russia’s borders with Belarus and Ukraine. After searching their homes investigators discovered numerous parts and equipment for missile air defence systems S-75, S0125, S-200 and S-300. Many of the items are classified, the customs press service told the media.

“We've intercepted more than 60 military components intended to be smuggled out of the country 40 of them were top secret. All this could be priceless,” Nikolai Vragov from the Russian Customs Service said during a press conference.

The smugglers used several schemes to misappropriate military equipment belonging to the 6th Air Force and Air Defence Army stationed in Russia’s Northwest. For example, they forged documents to mark weapon systems as defunct and used a front firm specializing in the scrapping of old military hardware to then embezzle them. Some of the schemes they created are up to two years old.

“The hardware is stolen from the state and it looses money it could have received if the spare parts were sold officially,” Ruslan Pukhov, a military expert told RT.

“Also it's Russian reputation which suffers because these used parts often lead to accidents. And lastly, these missile bits could get around Russia's ban on exports to some countries,” he added.

The equipment was due to be smuggled to Ukraine, Belarus, Bulgaria and Kazakhstan. Several citizens of Ukraine and Belarus, who were also among the criminals, were arrested in the operation.

The report also states the crime ring had a complex structure.

“Some illegally acquired military property at the depots and units of the Army, others forged the documents, yet others found people to transport it. Other people were keeping contact with the foreign buyers.”

The investigation believes that the ring members had high-profile backing in the army’s command and are now probing their possible patrons and other accomplices.

This is not the first instance of heavy weapons smuggling involving the Russian armed forces to attract the media’s attention this year. In February, several Navy officers were caught after an alleged attempt to illegally sell anti-submarine missiles and aviation bombs to a buyer in China.