LAGOS (Reuters) - Iran’s Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki flew to Nigeria on Thursday to discuss an arms shipment seized in the West African state last month which diplomats have said could put Tehran in breach of United Nations sanctions.
Nigerian Foreign Minister Odein Ajumogobia said his Iranian counterpart had pledged Tehran’s cooperation with investigations into the shipment, intercepted by Nigeria’s secret service two weeks ago and found to contain rockets and other explosives.
French-based shipping group CMA CGM has said the weapons were sealed in containers which were labeled as building materials and had been loaded in Iran by a local trader who did not appear on any “forbidden persons” listing.
“I had a productive meeting with the Iranian foreign minister this evening and he has assured us of his government’s cooperation in our ongoing investigation regarding the arms shipment,” Ajumogobia told Reuters by telephone.
Officials said earlier Iran’s ambassador in Nigeria had been summoned to discuss the weapons shipment.
Diplomats in New York said Iran would appear to be in breach of the United Nations sanctions regime, which forbids it from exporting any kind of weapons directly or indirectly, if the seized weapons were originally loaded on its territory.
But they said it was difficult to assess the case because Nigeria had not yet notified the U.N. Security Council’s Iran sanctions committee about the seizure.
A diplomat with access to intelligence on Iran told Reuters in New York Mottaki had gone to Abuja to discuss the seized arms and to secure permission from the Nigerians to bring two Iranians linked to the shipment back to Tehran.
The diplomat, who spoke on condition that neither his name nor nationality be identified, said the two Iranians were at the Iranian embassy in Abuja and that Tehran appeared reluctant to have them questioned by Nigerian authorities.
Nigeria’s secret service said on Wednesday it had been monitoring the movement of the illegal cargo before it entered Lagos, one of Africa’s busiest ports, in July and that there was no question that Nigeria was the intended destination.
“The bill of lading read building materials comprising glass wool and pallets of stone with destination as Nigeria, hence any argument that the cargo came into this country by mistake is false,” State Security Service spokeswoman Marilyn Ogar said.
CMA CGM has said the containers were loaded in Bandar Abbas and that it was the victim of a false cargo declaration. It has said it is cooperating fully with investigating agencies.
The weapons shown to journalists in Lagos when the seizure was made included 107mm rockets, designed to attack static targets and used by armies to support infantry units.
Security experts say the heavy rockets have also been used by groups including the Taliban in Afghanistan and Hamas Islamists in the Gaza Strip.
Israeli media reports, citing Israeli defense officials, have suggested the weapons may have been destined for Hamas and that a new smuggling route was being tested. Israel’s foreign ministry has declined to comment.
Israel says its arch-foe Iran bankrolls attempts to ship weapons to Gaza by sea or land routes. Iran says its support for Hamas is diplomatic only.
The seizure heightened concerns about national security in Africa’s most populous nation months ahead of elections, set to be the most fiercely contested in more than a decade.
It came weeks after car bombs killed at least 10 people near an independence day parade in the capital Abuja on October 1, attacks claimed by militants in the oil-producing Niger Delta.
The Niger Delta rebels have been illegally procuring weapons for years, although they have not been known to use anything as heavy as the arms seized in Lagos.
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Additional reporting by Lou Charbonneau in New York, Felix Onuah and Camillus Eboh in Abuja, David Lewis in Dakar; Writing by Nick Tattersall