KIEV, UKRAINE - Prosecutors have launched criminal proceedings against a Ukrainian company suspected of smuggling surface-to-air missiles and other weapons abroad for a possible sale to insurgents fighting the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, an official said Monday.
Serhiy Rudenko, a spokesman for the prosecutor general's office, also said criminal proceedings were launched against four foreign citizens - from Greece, Iraq and Pakistan - on charges of attempting to purchase weapons and hire mercenaries to fight in Iraq.
Rudenko said missiles and related equipment were "taken from the Ukrainian military" and smuggled out of the country, possibly to Iraq. He refused to identify the company, specify how many missiles and other equipment were taken and didn't provide details about what type of missiles they were.
"It is the matter of our defense security" he said.
The prosecutor's office has handed over all documents related to the case "to an appropriate court," Rudenko said, giving no further details.
Defense Ministry spokesman Vyacheslav Bolotniuk dismissed the prosecutor's claims, saying he had "no knowledge about it."
Rudenko told reporters Monday the four foreign citizens allegedly tried to purchase various weapons and set up a camp to train fighters to battle the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq.
In March, the four reportedly "offered a sum of money to a Ukrainian citizen in exchange for finding up to 150 specialists in explosives or sappers," Rudenko said.
"Criminals even developed a program to finance ... the camps to train mercenaries on Ukrainian soil," he said.
Ukraine has long been under scrutiny for allegations of murky weapons deals.
Two years ago, the United States claimed Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma sanctioned the sale of a sophisticated military radars to Iraq. The allegation, which Kuchma has vigorously denied, badly strained relations between Washington and Kiev.
In June, a ship loaded with weapons was seized in a Turkish port due to an incomplete customs declaration and cargo manifest. The shipment of surface-to-air missiles and other equipment belonged to Ukraine's key military procurement company Ukrspetsexport.
Ukrainian officials insisted the shipment was legal and destined for the Egyptian military. This incident appeared to be unrelated to the prosecutions of the company and the foreigners revealed on Monday.
Fears have also risen over how tightly this ex-Soviet republic has controlled its weapon stockpiles.
In March, Ukraine's Defense Minister Evhen Marchuk acknowledged that the military was looking for several hundred Soviet-built SA-2 surface-to-air missiles missing from country's vast military arsenals. Defense officials said hundreds of such missiles from Soviet arsenals in Warsaw Pact member countries had been brought to Ukraine for dismantling but were lost due to "accounting problems."
Ukraine initially opposed the U.S.-led war in Iraq, but later deployed some 1,600 troops to patrol the south-central part of the country under Polish command. The deployment was widely seen as an attempt to restore frayed relations with the United States.
It made Ukraine the fourth-largest contributor to the coalition and the largest among non-NATO countries. Eight Ukrainian soldiers have died, including three in combat, and more than 20 have been wounded.
Ukraine has said it plans to downsize its contingent by 200 troops starting with the next rotation scheduled to be completed in October.
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