LAGOS Fifteen Russian sailors charged with illegally bringing weapons into Nigeria last year were granted bail on Monday and released until a hearing in early April, a Lagos court ruled.
Nigerian authorities intercepted a ship and arrested its Russian crew on October 23 after they found several guns and around 8,500 rounds of ammunition aboard.
The Russian sailors have pleaded not guilty and the Moran Security Group, the Russian company that owns the confiscated vessel, has said the ship had permission to carry arms, calling the accusations "groundless".
"I'm glad that everybody - the court, the prosecution - they saw the need that the accused persons be granted bail. They've been in detention for months," defense lawyer Chukwuwike Okafor told Reuters after the hearing.
He said that, under the terms of the $500,000 bail, the sailors were not allowed to leave Nigeria and were under the care of the Russian ambassador, who must ensure they return for the hearing in April.
Russia's Foreign Ministry, which has spoken out strongly against the charges, on Monday welcomed the ruling, calling it "the first positive turn in developments surrounding the Russian sailors", according to the RIA news agency.
It said Nigeria's Foreign Minister, Olugbenga Ashiru, had promised his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov that the sailors would be given "a chance to return to their homeland" so as not to upset ties with Moscow.
Arms smuggling to and through Nigeria is rife. Demand for weapons is great because of an Islamist rebellion in the north, armed robbery and kidnapping by gangs in the south and oil theft and piracy in the southeast.
The country is also sometimes used as a conduit for shipping arms to other conflict-ridden parts of West Africa.
In 2010, a consignment of rocket launchers, grenades and other explosives from Iran was seized in Lagos, causing a diplomatic row between Nigeria and Iran. It also strained ties between Iran and Senegal, which accused Iranian security forces of trying to supply weapons to its Casamance rebels.