Artillery rockets like those often used by insurgents in Afghanistan were found to have filled an illegal arms shipment intercepted at Nigeria's busiest cargo port, raising security questions about the oil-rich nation before its upcoming presidential election.
Officials allowed journalists visiting the holding yard just inside of the port's main gate Wednesday to see the 107 mm rockets, rifle rounds and other weapons seized at Apapa Port. Authorities said the shipment also contained grenades, explosives and possibly rocket launchers, but journalists did not see them.
Nigerian National Security Adviser Andrew Owoye Azazi declined to say what ship carried the weapons into the port. He said the federal government would destroy them
"We don't want to make any conclusions about what threat they offer, where they are going (or) where they're coming from," Azazi told journalists. "Let's not jump to conclusions."
Authorities said the weapons were in a shipment whose manifest labeled the goods as building materials. As officials opened new containers, they pulled away yellow insulation and plastic to reach the individual crates. Broken floor tiles littered the ground.
Such 107 mm artillery rockets are manufactured by China, Iran and Russia, as well as the United States. The rockets can be fired from launchers with multiple rockets, or individually as a mortar. The rounds seen at the port bore English words, but no information about the manufacturer.
In the hands of highly trained troops, the rockets can accurately hit targets as far as eight and a half kilometers away, killing everything within about 40 feet. Fighters in Afghanistan and Iraq have used similar rockets against U.S. troops.
Such rockets could be used against oil pipelines, refineries or residential compounds occupied by foreign petroleum company employees throughout Nigeria's crude-rich southern delta. They also could be used against Army barracks and other targets.
Militants in the Niger Delta, upset by the region's endemic poverty after 50 years of crude production and pollution, have attacked government troops and oil company targets since 2006. A recent amnesty has brought an uneasy peace to the area.
"This is the first time we've seen anything like this being brought in," said Peter Sharwood-Smith, Nigeria country manager for security firm Drum Cussac. "We haven't seen mortars used, we haven't any sort of artillery used and we haven't seen rockets used. So it's a new thing."
The seizure is a troubling sign in Africa's most populous nation, coming less than a month after a car bombing targeting the country's independence celebrations killed at least 12 people. With Nigeria approaching what could be a hotly contested presidential election next year, the nation continues to see targeted killings allegedly committed by a radical Islamic sect and the threat of new violence in the Niger Delta.
The shipment also raised questions about the possible involvement of former militant and alleged arms dealer Henry Okah. Okah faces terrorism charges in South Africa; authorities say he masterminded the Oct. 1 bombing and served as the de facto voice of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, or MEND, the region's main militant group. MEND has claimed responsibility for the car bombing.
Okah has denied the charges and has said he did not write MEND communiques under the nom de guerre of Jomo Gbomo.