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IN THE NEWS — August 16, 2003: Briton Charged in U.S. with Missile Sale - 2003-08-15

This is In the News, in VOA Special English.

A London man faces charges that he tried to bring a missile into the United States. American officials say the missile was to be used to shoot down a passenger airplane.

Federal officials arrested Hemant Lakhani on Tuesday in Newark, New Jersey. They describe him as an international arms dealer. They charged him with trying to sell arms without a permit and providing material support to terrorists. Mister Lakhani is sixty-eight years old, a British citizen born in India.

His arrest followed eighteen months of investigation by American, British and Russian officials. The Russians told the Americans that Mister Lakhani had sought illegal arms from Russian crime groups. American investigators then began to observe his activities.

They say they secretly recorded many discussions between him and another man. These recordings are at the center of the criminal case.

Officials say the other man identified himself as a terrorist seeking missiles for a Somali group. But he was really an informer for the American government.

American investigators say the two men discussed the purchase of a Russian surface-to-air missile. They say Mister Lakhani knew the shoulder-launched-missile was to be used to attack an airliner in the United States.

The reported price for the missile was eighty-five-thousand dollars. Investigators say Mister Lakhani also promised to supply fifty more missiles for five-million dollars. They say he also expressed interest in buying tons of plastic explosive.

Investigators say Mister Lakhani praised the September eleventh, two-thousand-one, attacks on the United States. He reportedly said Osama bin Laden was a "hero" who "did a good thing."

Officials say Russian security officers fooled Mister Lakhani. They told him they were missile suppliers. Officials say Mister Lakhani thought the Russians had sold him a real missile. But investigators had disabled it. The missile was then brought by ship from Russia to the United States. Federal agents seized the missile on Tuesday.

Two other men are charged with making financial plans for the deal. One is Yehuda Abraham, in his mid-seventies, the owner of a gem business based in New York. The other is a thirty-eight-year-old Indian citizen. Moinuddeen Ahmed Hameed reportedly traveled to the United States this week from Malaysia. They and Mister Lakhani have not had a chance to answer the charges against them. More court hearings are set for next week.

Last November suspected al Qaida members tried to shoot down an Israeli passenger plane with two missiles in Mombasa, Kenya. The worldwide market in illegal arms is said to have hundreds and possibly thousands of shoulder-launched missiles for sale. American military officials are willing to provide anti-missile technology to airline companies, but say the equipment costs a lot.

In the News, from VOA Special English, was written by Cynthia Kirk.