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Ukrainians accused of smuggling 18 missiles

Ukrainians accused of smuggling 18 missiles

KIEV, Ukraine - Ukrainian weapons dealers smuggled 18 nuclear-capable cruise missiles to Iran and China four years ago, prosecutors said Friday, revealing fresh details of a probe that will test the new government's commitment to cleaning up corruption. Closed-door legal proceedings were under way.

The Associated Press reported Feb. 4 that a government investigation into lucrative illicit weapons sales by officials loyal to former President Leonid Kuchma, who left office in January, had led to secret indictments or arrests of at least six arms dealers accused of selling missiles to Iran and China.

In the Feb. 4 story, the AP reported that six missiles smuggled out of Ukraine purportedly ended up in Iran and six in China, although export documents known as end-user certificates recorded the final recipient of some 20 Kh55 missiles as Russia's Defense Ministry, according to a letter from legislator Hrihoriy Omelchenko to President Viktor Yushchenko.

Twelve of the missiles went to Iran and six to China, Prosecutor General Svyatoslav Piskun's office said Friday. The Kh55 cruise missiles have a range of 1,860 miles.

The office stressed the weapons were sold illegally, not exported by state enterprises, and that it was Kuchma's government which launched the probe. Nevertheless, the investigation could further tarnish the former leader's reputation and spark new calls for prosecution.

"The proceedings against persons implicated have been forwarded to the Kiev Court of Appeals and are being heard behind closed doors," the statement said.

In Washington, State Department deputy spokesman Adam Ereli welcomed the Ukrainian investigation, saying U.S. and Ukrainian authorities had discussed the case, but he did not know whether there were deliveries to China and Iran.

"I think it is fair to say that both the U.S. government and the Ukrainian government share a common concern and a dedication to acting to prevent or to find out and prevent cases of proliferation. That's certainly true in this instance," Ereli said.

Vyacheslav Astapov, a spokesman for the prosecutor's office, named one of the accused, Volodymyr Yevdokimov, whom he identified as the director of a cargo company, Ukraviazakaz.

He refused to provide other details, and it was unclear whether other suspects were involved in the proceedings at the court, which handles all sensitive cases.

At least three people were arrested and another three were indicted last year in connection with the illicit arms trade, an intelligence official told the AP on condition of anonymity in February.

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