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Last Updated: Thursday, 14 August, 2003, 04:25 GMT 05:25 UK
Three charged in US missile sting
Hemet Lakhani (right foreground) and Moinuddeen Ahmed Hameed (centre) in court
The suspects allegedly planned to trade 50 missiles
A Briton has been charged in the US with conspiring to sell missiles to terrorists with the aim of shooting down American airliners.

Hemant Lakhani was arrested in Newark, New Jersey, after an elaborate sting operation involving Russian and UK intelligence which stretched back 18 months.

Two other men were charged with helping to fund the alleged deal which was exposed on Tuesday when the three were arrested.

US prosecutors described Mr Lakhani, whose lawyer did not comment after the hearing, as an arms dealer and admirer of Osama Bin Laden.

Missile was bought 'specifically for the purpose of shooting an American airliner out of the sky'
Christopher Christie
US prosecutor

The 68-year-old Briton allegedly tried to sell an Igla missile to an FBI agent posing as an Islamic militant after buying it from Russian intelligence officers posing as suppliers.

Mr Lakhani was formally charged with attempting to provide material support to terrorists and attempting to sell arms without a licence.

Wearing a rumpled striped shirt, he said nothing during the seven-minute hearing.

According to the FBI affidavit, the Igla missile had been intended as a taster for an eventual batch of 50 and Mr Lakhani was looking for a down payment of $500,000 - or 10% of the total - having already secured $30,000.

'Osama a hero'

President George W Bush said the arrest showed that security was tightening in the US.

"The fact that we were able to sting this guy is a pretty good example of what we're doing in order to protect the American people," Mr Bush said.

One of the suspects arrives at the court in Newark
The accused have not commented on the charges
US Attorney Christopher Christie said the accused Briton had shown sympathy for al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden in meetings with an informant posing as the representative of a Somali militant group.

"On many occasions in recorded conversations he referred to... Osama bin Laden as a hero who had done something right and set the Americans straight," Mr Christie told reporters after the hearing.

According to the FBI affidavit, which is based on 150 conversations recorded between December 2001 and 13 August 2003, Mr Lakhani speaks of shooting down a commercial aircraft to "shake the economy" of the US.

Remanded in custody alongside Mr Lakhani was Moinuddeen Ahmed Hameed, an Indian citizen living in Malaysia, who was charged with conspiring to operate an illegal money-transmitting business to pay for the imported missile.

A third man, American Yehuda Abraham, was remanded on the same money-laundering charges in a Manhattan court.

Secret shipment

Mr Lakhani, a married man of Indian origin, normally lives in London.

He left London for New York on Sunday after allegedly arranging the Igla purchase at an arms factory in St Petersburg for $85,000, then organising for it to be shipped to Baltimore, disguised as medical equipment.

'MISSILE STING'

He was arrested at a Newark hotel after collecting a crate allegedly containing the missile.

The other suspects were later picked up at a New York gem dealership.

US prosecutors described the Russian Government's role in the sting as indispensable and a spokesman for Russia's FSB said it was the first operation of its kind since the Cold War.

BBC Russian Affairs Analyst Stephen Dalziel notes, however, that one sting operation will not be enough to convince observers that there is no longer any danger of Russian-made weapons falling into terrorist hands.

Fears over airline security were underlined on Wednesday when British Airways (BA) suspended flights to Saudi Arabia amid an apparently unrelated terror alert.

Shoulder-held surface-to-air missiles were fired unsuccessfully at an Israeli airliner as it took off from Mombasa in Kenya last November in an attack linked to al-Qaeda.

The Igla missile, which has a four-kilometre range and an infrared capability, is thought to have downed at least one Russian helicopter in Chechnya.

The Igla provided by the Russian security services in this case was dummy which could not have been fired.





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The BBC's Nick Bryant
outside the New Jersey Federal Court



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