KIEV -- A government investigation into illicit weapons sales by officials loyal to former Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma has led to indictments or arrests of at least six arms dealers accused of selling nuclear-capable missiles to Iran and China, a high-ranking intelligence official said yesterday.
The deals with Moscow-allied nations, which violate international nonproliferation treaties, put pressure on Ukraine's new president to halt the country's well-established illegal arms trade as he tries to boost ties with and join NATO and the European Union.
President Viktor Yushchenko has promised to investigate illicit weapons-dealing, including a US allegation that Kuchma approved the sale of a sophisticated Kolchuga radar system to Iraq despite UN sanctions against Saddam Hussein's regime. Kuchma denied the allegations.
Ukraine's intelligence agency, the State Security Service, launched its investigation of the case involving Iran and China on Feb. 14, 2004, during Kuchma's presidency. But the inquiry was not publicized until this week, when lawmaker Hrihoriy Omelchenko -- a reserve colonel in the intelligence service -- wrote Yushchenko asking him to pursue a full investigation.
Six missiles purportedly ended up in Iran and another six allegedly went to China, although export documents known as end-user certificates recorded the final recipient of some 20 Kh-55 missiles as ''Russia's Defense Ministry," according to Omelchenko's letter. He did not say what happened to the eight other missiles.
The missiles allegedly sold to Iran were unarmed, but are designed to carry 200-kiloton nuclear warheads. Western nations have accused Iran of trying to develop a nuclear weapons program, an allegation Tehran denies. China is a declared nuclear weapons state.
A Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Alexander Yakovenko, and a Defense Ministry spokesman, Colonel Vyacheslav Sedov, said Ukraine had not informed Russia of the allegations that missiles meant for Moscow had been diverted, and that Moscow would await Ukraine's investigation. Russia's state arms export company, Rosoboronexport, declined comment.
Omelchenko's letter to Yushchenko and another to the prosecutor-general, Svyatoslav Piskun, refer to a Ukrainian Security Service report that includes details of the allegations.
At least three people were arrested and another three were secretly indicted last year in connection with the illicit arms trade -- including some of those mentioned by name in the letters -- according to the intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
According to Omelchenko, in 2000 Russian national Oleg Orlov and a Ukrainian partner identified as E.V. Shilenko ''exported 20 Kh-55 cruise missiles through a fake contract and end-user certificate" with Russia's state-run arms dealer and with a firm called Progress, which has corporate ties to Ukrspetseksport -- Ukraine's weapons exporting agency.
Last year, Ukrainian prosecutors indicted Orlov and Shilenko in absentia for illegal weapons trading, the intelligence official said. Orlov was detained on July 13 in the Czech Republic.
There is an ongoing extradition procedure to return Orlov to Ukraine for possible prosecution, a spokesman for the Czech Justice Ministry, Petr Dimun, confirmed yesterday. Dimun said the procedures were interrupted recently because Orlov suffered a stroke, although he is recovering. Shilenko remains at large, Omelchenko said.
Orlov is reputed to be a prominent weapons broker. In its 2001 report, the UN Security Council implicated Orlov and his company, E. M. M. Arab Systems Ltd., in sanctions-busting related with ferrying weapons and supplies to Angola's rebel UNITA group. Profits from the sales were estimated at $2.1 million or more.
The Kh-55, known in the West as the AS-15, has a range of 1,860 miles and is designed to carry a nuclear warhead with a 200-kiloton yield. Iran does not operate long-range bombers but it is believed Tehran could adapt its Soviet-built Su-24 strike aircraft to launch the missile. The missile's range would put Israel and a number of US allies within reach.
Ukrainian weapons dealers ferried missiles to China through a Ukraine-based cargo company run by a former secret service agent, according to Omelchenko.