LAGOS (Reuters) - Crates of weapons including rocket launchers and mortars seized in Nigeria this week were loaded in Iran by a local trader, the company which shipped the containers said on Saturday.
French-based shipping group CMA CGM said it had been the victim of a false cargo declaration and that the weapons and ammunitions were in sealed containers which had been declared as “packages of glass wool and pallets of stone.”
Nigeria’s secret service intercepted the 13 containers in the country’s main port of Lagos -- one of Africa’s busiest -- this week and said it found rocket launchers, grenades and other explosives and ammunition.
“The shipment in question was booked as a ‘shipper’s owned container’ and supplied loaded and sealed by the shipper, an Iranian trader who does not appear on any ‘forbidden persons’ listing,” CMA CGM said in a statement.
“The containers were loaded in Bandar Abbas and discharged in Lagos in July,” it said, adding it was cooperating fully with local and international agencies investigating the shipment.
Israeli media reports, citing Israeli defense officials, have suggested the weapons may have been destined for Hamas Islamists in Gaza 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 the Gaza Strip by sea or land routes. Iran says its support for Hamas is diplomatic only.
The Iranian embassy in Nigeria said it may issue a statement on the arms seizure in the coming days.
The weapons shown to journalists in Lagos this week included 107mm rockets, designed to attack static targets and used by armies to support infantry units. Security experts say they have also been used by groups including the Taliban in Afghanistan and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Nigeria’s secret service has said it is too soon to speculate on where the weapons were going and that investigations are continuing. The customs service said the only documentation it had seen was the manifest and could not immediately confirm the containers had come from Iran.
CMA CGM said the containers had been held by customs since arriving in Lagos in July. It is not unusual for shipments to take several months to pass through customs clearance in the port, one of the busiest on the continent.
The French shipping firm said the shipper had requested that the containers be re-loaded and shipped to Gambia, further round the West African coast, and that it had obtained customs documents and clearance for the voyage.
But the Nigerian authorities blocked the goods before they could be re-exported, it said.
The seizure has heightened concerns about national security in Africa’s most populous nation months ahead of elections.
It came weeks after car bombs killed at least 10 people near an independence day parade in the capital Abuja on October 1.
Militant groups in the oil-producing Niger Delta have been illegally supplied weapons for years and Boko Haram, a radical Islamist group in the north, is also believed to have received illegal arms, raising questions about border surveillance.
The authorities have said they have stepped up security in the wake of both the Abuja bombings and the Lagos seizure.
Additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem