ABUJA (Reuters) - A court in Nigeria on Thursday charged an alleged member of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and three Nigerians over a shipment of mortars and rockets seized in the main port of Lagos last month.
Nigeria reported the seizure of the shipment -- including rockets and other explosives hidden in containers of building materials -- to the U.N. Security Council this month for an apparent breach of U.N. sanctions on Iran.
Azim Adhajani, identified on the charge sheet as a Tehran-based businessman and member of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, was charged alongside an alleged Nigerian accomplice with the importation of prohibited firearms.
“I need my embassy to represent me,” Adhajani, 43, told the chief magistrate’s court in Abuja, declining to enter a plea.
The two men and two more Nigerian suspects were also charged with conspiring to re-export the illegal shipment to Banjul, Gambia. The three Nigerians -- named as Abuja-based businessman Ali Usman Abbas Jega and customs clearing agents Ali Oroji Wamako and Mohammed Tukur -- pleaded not guilty.
The court documents said the seized weapons included assorted calibers of mortars and 107 mm rockets -- designed to attack static targets and used by armies to support infantry units -- as well as shells for a 23 mm anti-aircraft gun.
A security expert in Nigeria said such weapons could all have been produced in Iran.
Diplomatic sources told Reuters shortly after the goods were seized that two members of the al-Quds force -- an elite unit of the Revolutionary Guards which specializes in foreign operations for Iran -- had taken refuge in the Iranian embassy in Abuja.
Nigeria’s secret service questioned one of the men, believed to be Adhajani, after the intervention of Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, who flew to Abuja on November 11 to discuss the seizure with his Nigerian counterpart.
But the intelligence agency was unable to question the second Iranian because he had diplomatic immunity. He is believed to have left Nigeria with Mottaki, diplomatic and security sources said.
Mystery surrounds the intended destination of the weapons, which arrived in Nigeria in July and were intercepted by the secret service in October. It is not unusual for cargo in Lagos, one of Africa’s busiest ports, to take months to clear customs.
Nigeria’s foreign minister has said the shipment was originally meant for an address in Abuja but was intercepted when an attempt was made to re-export it to Gambia.
Mottaki said after visiting Abuja that the cargo belonged to a private firm and was “for sale legitimately to a West African country.” He described the seizure as a “misunderstanding.”
The charge sheet said Adhajani and Jega imported the weapons between July 7 and 15 and that all four suspects conspired to export them to Banjul on October 12-13.
French-based shipping group CMA CGM has said the containers were loaded in the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas and that it was the victim of a false cargo declaration.
The shipment was seized weeks after twin car bomb attacks in Abuja, which killed at least 10 people and were claimed by a militant group in the restive Niger Delta region, home to Africa’s biggest oil and gas industry.
The seizure raised concerns that groups within Nigeria may be seeking to destabilize Africa’s most populous nation ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections next April.
Writing by Nick Tattersall; editing by Andrew Roche