6 charged in Md. arms deal sting

Officials say Tamil Tigers were to receive weapons

September 30, 2006|By Matthew Dolan | Matthew Dolan,Sun reporter

Six South Asian arms dealers who paid undercover customs agents in Maryland hundreds of thousands of dollars to ship restricted, high-tech weapons to rebels in Sri Lanka and the Indonesian Army have been arrested by federal authorities in Guam, officials said yesterday.

The elaborate sting operation took center stage in Baltimore this summer, where federal agents put up a Singapore arms broker at a four-star Inner Harbor hotel, arranged for him to attend religious services at a mosque in Laurel and took him to a shooting range in Harford County so he could test-fire machine guns they said he was interested in illegally buying.

The ruse, authorities said, led representatives for the Tamil Tigers insurgents in Sri Lanka to deposit $700,000 with undercover agents as a down payment for millions of dollars in sniper rifles, submachine guns and grenade launchers. The arms dealers also inquired about unmanned air vehicles and buying surface-to-air missiles to shoot down Israeli-built aircraft in Sri Lanka, according to federal court papers.

Yesterday's announcement once again highlighted how attractive Maryland appears to be to arms dealers who want to buy banned state-of-the-art weapons in a state rich with defense contractors. Officials said they have stepped up enforcement, pointing out that the original tip in the case was handled by a military technology task force set up by federal and local law enforcement in 2002 to root out those who attempt to export arms illegally.

Last month, FBI agents searched the office of a Cumberland physician who is president of a Sri Lankan charitable organization suspected of funneling money to the Tamil Tigers. Officials said yesterday that the two cases are unrelated.

"It's our commitment to make sure we do everything we can not only to make sure that terrorists don't attack us in the United States, but terrorists do not find any support here in the United States for their activities overseas," Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said at a news conference yesterday.

Federal prosecutors charged all six defendants - Haniffa Bin Osman, 55, of Singapore; Thirunavukarasu Varatharasa, 36, of Sri Lanka; and Erick Wotulo, 60, Haji Subandi, 69, Reinhard Rusli, 34, and Helmi Soedirdja, 33, of Indonesia - with conspiracy to export arms and munitions.

Osman, Wotulo and Subandi were also accused of money laundering and conspiring to provide material support to a terrorist organization.

The defendants, arrested Thursday and yesterday, traveled to the American-controlled South Pacific island to purchase night vision devices, sniper rifles, submachine guns with suppressors and grenade launchers. Federal prosecutors from Maryland will ask a judge in Guam on Monday to send the defendants to Baltimore for trial. The maximum prison sentences range from five years on conspiracy to export arms to 20 years for money laundering.

The military equipment at issue, which can only be purchased in the United States by a licensed dealer for an approved customer, was to be shipped to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, also known as the Tamil Tigers, and customers in Indonesia, including the army, according to court papers and interviews with federal officials.

Mark Bastan, acting special agent in charge of the Baltimore office of the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said the potential arms shipment would have weighed more than 3 1/2 tons and would have filled 14 pallets on a truck.

"American-made weapons and weapons technology are the envy of the world. And they give us a competitive military edge," Bastan said, adding that the mission to combat the illegal export of military technology was among his agency's highest priorities. The customs investigators were aided by agents from the Baltimore FBI, the Defense Criminal Investigative Service and the Baltimore Police Department.

Investigators said they set up their operations in 2004 when an arms broker suspect contacted an undercover customs agent about acquiring arms for the Tamil Tigers. According to court papers, the broker became the link in both cases, introducing federal agents to those interested in buying weapons for the Tamil Tigers as well as the Indonesian military.

The Tamil Tigers have long advocated the violent overthrow of the Sri Lankan government, using suicide bombings. The State Department labeled the Tamil Tigers as a foreign terrorist organization in 1997. The paramilitary organization cannot legally raise money or buy sensitive military equipment in the United States. But experts said the Sri Lankan rebels have skirted the ban by seeking out arms in other countries.

"They have a global arms procurement network" stretching from Croatia to South Africa to Singapore, said Peter Chalk, senior analyst at the Rand Corp., based in Santa Monica, Calif.

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