28 October 2010

Nigeria: Seized Weapons Linked to Palestine

Photo: Nwankpa Chijioke
Secret service agents offloading rocket launchers intercepted in Lagos.

The large shipment of arms intercepted by security agents at the Apapa Port, Lagos on Tuesday may have taken an international dimension as it emerged yesterday that the seized weapons were actually heading for Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip in Palestine.

Israeli officials said the military-grade armaments came from Iran and were bound for the Gaza Strip.

According to Associated Press (AP), the Israeli military officials would not provide evidence to support their claims, citing "security concerns".

However, the information would seem to conflict with claims by customs officials that the weaponry, which included 107 mm artillery rockets, were to be brought into the oil-rich West African nation.

The Israeli officials, AP said, spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not allowed to speak with journalists.

Iran remains a bitter enemy of Israel and is known to support Islamic militant groups in Lebanon and Gaza that are in a state of war with the Jewish state.

In 2008, Israel launched a military campaign against Iran-backed militants in Gaza in an attempt to stop years of almost daily rocket attacks on southern Israel.

Ismail Radwan, a Hamas leader in Gaza, denied the weapons were headed to Gaza.

State Security Service (SSS) Spokeswoman Marilyn Ogar failed to respond to enquiries by THISDAY last night on the position of the Israeli officials.

Customs Public Relations Officer Wale Adeniyi also refused to comment on the issue.

SSS had on Tuesday intercepted a arms shipment containing "rocket launchers, grenades and other explosives," at the Apapa Wharf, Lagos, the largest shipping port in the country.

The service said the shipment was in 13 containers. The artillery rockets like those often used by the Taliban in Afghanistan filled the shipment intercepted as security agents on Wednesday allowed journalists to see the seized 107 mm rockets, rifle rounds and other weapons.

SSS had said the shipment contained grenades, explosives, mortars and possibly rocket launchers.

The Customs Service had said the MV CMA-CGM Everest dropped the weapons off on July 10.

Adeniyi said the ship last stopped at Mumbai's Jawaharlal Nehru Port before coming to Nigeria.

The spokesman said security officials became suspicious of the containers as the shipment did not have proper documentation.

However, it initially appeared that the cargo was to have remained in Nigeria, he said.

The containers had "been on ground since July 10. There have been some attempts to clear them" for importation into Nigeria, Adeniyi had said.

"We understand later that there was an application to re-export them," he added.

The Everest, a cargo ship registered in the Marshall Islands, is chartered by CMA-CGM, a shipping company based in France.

In a statement yesterday, CMA-CGM said the containers holding the weapons were owned by the firm that shipped them.

The shipping company said the manifest for the weapons described the shipment as "packages of glasswool and pallets of stone".

The containers "were supplied, loaded and sealed by the shipper, delivered to the port of loading for transportation and remained sealed during the whole transportation process", CMA-CGM's statement read. "The seals were fully intact upon discharge in Nigeria."

The company declined to comment further, other than to say it had cooperated with Nigerian security services.

In the hands of highly trained troops, the 107 mm artillery rockets can accurately hit targets as far as eight and a half kilometers away, killing everything within about 40 feet. Fighters in Afghanistan and Iraq have used similar rockets against U.S. troops.

China, the United States, and Russia manufacture versions of the rocket, as does Iran - which calls the weapon a Katyusha rocket.

In 2006, the Islamic militant group Hezbollah fired nearly 4,000 Katyusha rockets across Israel's Northern border, some of which fell as far as 55 miles (90 kilometers) inside Israel.

Meanwhile, an Iranian businessman with chains of business in Nigeria alleged to be the mastermind of the arsenal of seized weapon is said to have gone into hiding.

He is said to have sought temporary residence at the Iranian Embassy in Nigeria .

An Iranian Embassy official decline to confirm if he was with them, if he would be handed over to security agency.

Customs Comptroller-General, Alhaji Inde Dikko Abdullahi, has, however, explained why the service rejected the application filed by the shipping company asking for change of manifest of the arms shipment.

Sources said the importer decided to apply for change of manifest of the cargo when it became clear that the customs service would not allow the clearance at the port.

This was after the containers had been stemmed to a bonded terminal located near Ijora, Lagos.

The shipping company was said to have transferred the containers back to Apapa Port to begin the process of manifest change when the SSS intercepted the goods.

It was gathered that the containers would have left for The Gambia if the shipping company had secured approval for the change of manifest.

The source said that containers were awaiting the approval of the application for manifest change as well as export procedure for the goods to leave the country.

Abdullahi spoke when he visited the Apapa Port to assess the arms shipment.

The Customs boss explained that since the service operates automated system, it was easy to discover that the importer abused the procedure, adding that this was what eventually led to the seizure.

He identified the absence of Form M as well as the mandatory Risk Assessment Report (RAR) as among the things that made the service become alert over the cargo.

He commended security operatives for the combined effort in the seizure of the 13 containers of arms shipment into the country.

The comptroller-general said the various security operatives displayed a show of solidarity, diligence and competence in the interception of the containers.

"In fact, this is the spirit of intense relationship," he said.

He called on Nigerians to show confidence in their leaders, adding, "this is the only way we can move forward".

As at the time of filing this report, security operatives at the port led by officers and men of the SSS had examined eight containers of the heinous consignment.

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