Israeli officials said Thursday that the military-grade armaments seized at a shipping terminal in Nigeria came from Iran and were bound for the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.
The military officials would not provide evidence to support their claims, citing "security concerns." However, the information initially appeared to conflict with claims by Nigerian customs officials that the weaponry, which included 107 mm artillery rockets, were to be brought into the oil-rich West African nation.
The Israeli officials spoke Thursday on condition of anonymity as they were not allowed to speak with journalists.
Iran remains a bitter enemy of Israel and supports Islamic militant groups in Lebanon and Gaza that are in a state of war with the Jewish state. In the winter of 2008, Israel launched a military campaign against Iran-backed militants in Gaza in an attempt to stop years of almost daily rocket attacks on southern Israel.
Ismail Radwan, a Hamas leader in Gaza, denied the weapons were headed to Gaza.
Agents with Nigeria's secretive State Security Service discovered the weapons Tuesday hidden inside of 13 shipping containers dropped off at Lagos' busy Apapa Port. Journalists allowed to see the weapons Wednesday saw 107 mm rockets, rifle rounds and other items labeled in English. Authorities said the shipment also contained grenades, explosives and possibly rocket launchers, but journalists did not see them.
Wale Adeniyi, a spokesman for Nigeria's Customs Service, said Thursday that the MV CMA-CGM Everest dropped the weapons off in July. Adeniyi said the ship last stopped at Mumbai's Jawaharlal Nehru Port before coming to Nigeria.
The spokesman said security officials became suspicious of the containers as the shipment did not have proper documentation. However, it initially appeared that the cargo was to have remained in Nigeria, he said.
The containers have "been on ground since July. There have been some attempts to clear them" for importation into Nigeria, Adeniyi said. "We understand later that there was an application to re-export them."
The Everest, a cargo ship registered in the Marshall Islands, is chartered by CMA-CGM, a shipping company based in France. In a statement released Thursday, CMA-CGM said the containers holding the weapons were owned by the firm that shipped them. The shipping company said the manifest for the weapons described the shipment as "packages of glasswool and pallets of stone."
The containers "were supplied, loaded and sealed by the shipper, delivered to the port of loading for transportation and remained sealed during the whole transportation process," CMA-CGM's statement read. "The seals were fully intact upon discharge in Nigeria."
The company declined to comment further, other than to say it has cooperated with Nigerian security services.
In the hands of highly trained troops, the 107 mm artillery 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.
China, the United States, and Russia manufacture versions of the rocket, as does Iran _ which calls the weapon a Katyusha rocket. In 2006, the Islamic militant group Hezbollah fired nearly 4,000 Katyusha rockets across Israel's northern border, some of which fell as far as 55 miles (90 kilometers) inside Israel.
The weapons seizure comes as Nigeria, an OPEC-member nation that is one of the top crude oil suppliers to the U.S., approaches what could be a highly contested presidential election next year. Security remains a concern in Nigeria as it continues to see targeted killings allegedly committed by a radical Islamic sect in the north and the threat of new violence in its oil-rich southern delta.
Associated Press Writer Ian Deitch reported from Jerusalem.