A weapons cache containing artillery rockets seized by Nigerian security agents at the West African nation's busiest port originally came from Iran, an international shipping company said Saturday.
The statement from CMA CGM, an international cargo shipper based in France, comes after Israeli officials accused Iran of trying to sneak the shipment into the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. By unloading the weapons in Nigeria, the Israeli claim suggests Iran perhaps sought to truck the weapons through Africa to slide around an embargo now in place in Gaza.
Hussein Abdullahi, Iran's ambassador to Nigeria, said there was no clear evidence linking his country to the shipment.
The "different speculation doesn't have any clear sources. At this time, we can't judge on any of them," Abdullahi told The Associated Press on Saturday. "Sometimes they blame India, sometimes they blame Iran, sometimes they say the arms are going to Nigeria, sometimes they say they are going to Gambia. Now, they claim they are going to the Gaza Strip.
"There is different speculation, but there is no clear evidence for (any) of them."
The MV CMA CGM Everest picked up the 13 shipping containers from Bandar Abbas, a port in southern Iran, the company said. The shipment, which stopped in Mumbai's port before heading to Lagos, had been labeled as containing "packages of glass wool and pallets of stone."
"The shipment in question was booked as a 'shippers-owned container' and supplied, loaded and sealed by the shipper, an Iranian trader who does not appear on any forbidden persons listing," CMA CGM's statement read. "The containers were ... discharged in Lagos in July and transferred to a customs-bonded depot where they have remained with all seals untouched and unbroken."
The shipment sat untouched for weeks, a common occurrence in Lagos' busy and chaotic Apapa Port. Last week, the Iranian shipper filed a request for the containers to be picked up again and this time shipped to the West African nation of Gambia, CMA CGM said.
Agents with Nigeria's State Security Service discovered the weapons Tuesday. Journalists allowed to view the weapons on 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.
In the hands of highly trained troops, the 107 mm artillery rockets can accurately hit targets more than 5 miles (8.5 kilometers) away, killing everything within about 40 feet (12 meters). 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.
Israeli military officials, speaking on condition of anonymity as they were unauthorized to discuss the matter with journalists, said Thursday that it appeared Iran hoped to smuggle the weapons into the Gaza Strip. Israel instituted a naval blockade of the region in 2007 after Iranian-backed Hamas seized control of the Palestinian territory.
However, there remain more questions than answers about the Israeli claims. To reach Gaza, the weapons would first need to be trucked across Nigeria into Chad, Sudan and ultimately through Egypt. It also remains unclear why the shipper wanted to try to re-export the weapons to Gambia, a tiny sliver of nation carved out inside of Senegal.
Abdullahi, the Iranian ambassador, said his embassy in Nigeria's capital, Abuja, planned to hold a news conference Monday to address the allegations. The weapons shipment claims come after a July visit by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Nigeria.
Nigeria, an OPEC-member nation that is one of the top crude oil suppliers to the U.S., is approaching 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.