WEAPONS SMUGGLING

JUNE 18 2009 11:16h

Nigeria Impounds Ukrainian Plane, Arms on Board

Passengers leave a KLM aircraft at the Cologne airport

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An official at Nigeria`s Kano airport said the plane stopped in Kano to refuel late on Wednesday when security officers discovered the arms.

A Ukrainian cargo plane bound for Equatorial Guinea has been impounded in Nigeria after security officers found weapons and ammunition on board, a Nigerian official and Ukrainian media said.

The official at northern Nigeria's Kano airport, who asked not to be identified, said the plane stopped to refuel late on Wednesday when the arms were discovered during a routine search.

Nigerian police confirmed that an aircraft had been detained but gave no details of its origin or destination.

"I can confirm that the plane was impounded because of the arms found in it. I think it was in transit. Investigations have commenced and we will get a clear picture soon," Nigerian police spokesman Emmanuel Ojukwu told Reuters from the capital, Abuja.

The Russian news agency Itar-Tass said the AN-12 cargo plane belonged to a Ukrainian company, Meridian, and quoted its head as saying the cargo was being held for no reason.

"There were all (the) permits for this flight, including from the Nigerian authorities. There were no violations regarding either the plane or the cargo, or the documents," Meridian Director-General Mykola Minyaylo was quoted as saying.

"The plane was flying from Zagreb to Equatorial Guinea and landed in Nigeria to refuel," he said, adding the seven-member crew had had their passports seized but were in good physical condition.

The Ukrainian news agency UNIAN quoted the country's main arms export agency Ukrspetsexport as saying the plane's cargo had nothing to do with Ukraine but belonged to Croatia.

The Ukrainian embassy in Nigeria declined to comment.

FORMER SPANISH COLONY

Equatorial Guinea, sub-Saharan Africa's third-biggest oil producer and a magnet for U.S. oil companies, has suffered decades of instability.

In 2004 dozens of foreign mercenaries, mostly South Africans, were caught trying to overthrow the president of the tiny former Spanish colony.

The coup attempt caught world attention because it was led by a former British special forces officer and self-confessed mercenary who accused Mark Thatcher, son of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, of involvement. Thatcher denied any role.

A regional diplomat who asked not to identified said the shipment appeared to be arms that were ordered by the government of Equatorial Guinea.

The mercenaries involved in the 2204 coup attempt were jailed but other gunmen believed to be from Nigeria's Niger Delta, where militants have been attacking oil facilities for years, have launched other attacks on the mainland and offshore.

Gunmen in motor boats attacked Equatorial Guinea's capital Malabo on Feb. 17 before being repelled by the armed forces.

Its president, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, sacked three senior security and defence officials after the incident.