Kiev: 18 Missiles Sold to Iran, China

Smugglers in Ukraine shipped 18 cruise missiles, each capable of carrying a nuclear warhead, to Iran and China at the beginning of the decade, Ukrainian prosecutors said Friday.

The apparent sale to Iran of 12 of the Soviet-era Kh55 cruise missiles, which have a range of 2,975 kilometers, may add to concerns in Washington over alleged efforts to develop nuclear weapons in Iran.

Allegations of the sales first surfaced last month in comments by a Ukrainian legislator, but public confirmation by the new administration of President Viktor Yushchenko came only Friday.

Each missile is capable of carrying a nuclear warhead with a 200-kiloton yield at altitudes too low to be detected by radar, and their shipment has been portrayed as a significant leak of Soviet-era weapons technology.

Yury Boychenko, an aide to Ukraine's prosecutor general, said by telephone that sales had not involved the government of then-President Leonid Kuchma.

But Hrihory Omelchenko, the legislator who went public last month with allegations of the smuggling operation, charged Friday that, "It is ridiculous to say that they have no information about the involvement of high state officials."

"The deal, or actually two deals, were from the very beginning monitored by Ukrspetsexport, the state-owned arms sale monopoly," he said. "Kuchma was in the picture from the very beginning, and in other words he sanctioned the deals.''

He said the missiles were shipped to China in 2000 and to Iran in 2001.

If the missiles were made operational, they could strike Israel if launched from Iran and Japan if fired from China or its neighbor, North Korea. The Japanese government reportedly is worried that the six missiles allegedly shipped to China could have ended up in North Korea, which claims to possess nuclear weapons.

Boychenko said investigators have identified three key members of the smuggling ring: two Russians and a Ukrainian citizen identified as Vladimir Yevdokimov. He said one of the Russians was in custody in the Czech Republic and soon would be extradited to Ukraine. An investigation of the sales was launched by Ukraine's security service early last year, and a closed-door trial of Yevdokimov began last summer and is still underway, Boychenko said.