LAGOS (Reuters) - A Nigerian court dropped charges of arms trafficking against seven Russian sailors on Tuesday, their lawyer said, ending a year-long case that has frayed diplomatic relations between Nigeria and Russia.
The seven were among 15 Russian sailors charged with illegally bringing weapons into Nigeria last year, after Nigerian authorities intercepted a ship on October 23 and found on board several guns and thousands of rounds of ammunition.
The other eight had already had the charges against them dropped in June.
Confirming Tuesday's verdict, defense lawyer Ogidigba Mobosa also told Reuters TV that two Nigerians who had been aboard the ship had been charged with wrongfully telling the Russians they had permission to enter Nigerian territory with the weapons.
The boat was operated by Nigerian shipping company Blue Sea Maritime. The Russian sailors did not explain during the court hearings why the arms were on board.
The Russian Foreign Ministry welcomed the court verdict and said in a statement that it would help future bilateral ties.
Arms smuggling to and through Nigeria is rife, with demand fuelled by an Islamist rebellion in the north and by armed robbery, kidnapping, oil theft and piracy in the south.
Nigeria is also sometimes used as a conduit for shipping arms to other conflict-ridden parts of West Africa, which experts say has overtaken the coast of Somalia as the region of the continent worst affected by piracy.
Shippers complain that a lack of permission for armed private security leaves them vulnerable to pirates.
(Reporting by Sharon Atseyinku, Writing by Tim Cocks, Editing by Gareth Jones)