3 deny trying to sell military-grade arms to Colombia rebels

AP News
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Posted: Feb 26, 2015 8:12 PM

NEW YORK (AP) — Three men pleaded not guilty on Thursday in an arms-dealing conspiracy case that spans three continents: They are charged with scheming in Europe to sell military-grade weapons to buyers posing as terrorists seeking to shoot down American aircraft in Colombia.

Cristian Vintila, Massimo Romagnoli and Virgil Flaviu Georgescu appeared in a New York federal court after being extradited from Montenegro, where they were arrested in December. No bail was set Thursday.

Vintila and Georgescu were based in Romania, and Romagnoli was based in Greece, prosecutors say.

"As alleged, these three men were ready and willing merchants of death, poised to sell sophisticated weapons to a terrorist organization," U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said in a statement.

Prosecutors say Georgescu, Romagnoli and Vintila offered last year to sell weapons including machine guns and rocket launchers to informants who posed as associates of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the half-century-old rebel group known as FARC, which has been on the U.S. Department of State's list of foreign terrorist organizations since 1997.

The informants told the men the weapons would be used to attack American forces helping the Colombian government, particularly to shoot down American helicopters and airplanes, according to an indictment.

After hearing that, the men showed informants catalogues of arms they said they could provide, and they broached payment and delivery logistics, the indictment said. During secretly recorded meetings with the informants in Bucharest, Romania, and Tivat, Montenegro, the men also discussed providing fraudulent certificates designed to make illegal weapons sales look legitimate, prosecutors said.

The men are charged with conspiring to kill Americans and to provide material support to a terrorist organization. The charges carry the potential for a life sentence upon conviction.

Georgescu's lawyer, Albert Dayan, told a judge that this is "not a classic terror case."

"This is an allegation of an attempt to sell arms," he said.

The other defendants' lawyers, Calvin Scholar and Christopher Flood, had no immediate comment.

The FARC has been in talks with Colombia's government since November 2012 in Havana on ending a conflict that has claimed more than 200,000 lives over the decades.

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Reach Jennifer Peltz on Twitter @jennpeltz.