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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Smugglers Tied to African Embassies

Authorities have broken up a smuggling ring, in which African embassies were used to slip electronic goods into Russia under the cover of diplomatic mail, the Federal Customs Service said Thursday.

The smuggling operation started in February last year and was broken up on May 11 when customs and Federal Security Service officers raided a Moscow warehouse and seized more than $1 million worth of laptop computers, flat-screen monitors and printers, officials said.

"The embassies of a number of African countries were listed as the recipients of the expensive goods brought to Russia," the customs service said in a statement.

Under international law, embassies and diplomats are exempt from high import duties on goods meant for work or personal use. The smuggled goods were destined for resale, officials said.

The customs service said four suspects had been detained, including two foreigners.

But a spokesman for the Moscow City Prosecutor's Office, which is handling a criminal investigation into the matter, said only three people had been arrested, all of them Russians.

Officials from the customs service, the prosecutor's office and the Federal Security Service, or FSB, refused to say which embassies had been implicated in the ring. The Foreign Ministry said it had not been notified about the possible involvement of foreign diplomats.

The shipments were addressed to diplomatic missions and their employees but were later sold with the use of fake documents that showed the goods had been purchased in Russia, said the City Prosecutor's Office spokesman, Sergei Marchenko.

He refused to say how many shipments had been made over the past 15 months or to provide an estimate of how much the goods were worth.

The customs service statement said the ring included foreigners and at least one person who had studied with a number of African diplomats at a Moscow university. It did not identify the school.

In the raid, officers also seized piles of fake documents, including stamped and signed official stationery from various embassies and ID cards for federal government agencies, the statement said.

Diplomatic mail, which is protected by international laws from even being looked at, has long been used to avoid the attention of customs and other local officials. The Soviet Union is thought to have used sealed diplomatic pouches to transport information obtained through spying. The late Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic funneled $3 billion to $4 billion out of his country with the help of the Yugoslav Embassy in Moscow, media reports suggested in 2000.

Illegal importing of electronic goods is a serious problem, with the market growing at 30 percent a year, said Anton Guskov, a spokesman for the Association of Electronics Retailers.

Only 12 percent of computer parts are believed to be imported legally, he said. In comparison, up to 95 percent of large kitchen appliances such as refrigerators are imported legally.

Guskov said it was hard to put a value on illegally smuggled goods. The retail cost of all computer imports, however, was $8 billion to $9 billion in 2005, and the cost of home appliances amounted to $12 billion, he said. "Smuggling threatens honest players and creates unfair price competition," he said.

Thursday's announcement came a week after President Vladimir Putin ordered the Federal Customs Service to report directly to Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov and fired its three top officials. Previously, the service operated under the Economic Development and Trade Ministry.

Putin appointed as its new chief Andrei Belyaninov, who had worked with him as a fellow KGB spy in East Germany in the 1980s.

The bust of the embassy smuggling ring happened before Putin's shakeup.