KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukrainian weapons dealers smuggled 18 nuclear-capable cruise missiles to Iran and China four years ago, prosecutors said Friday, revealing fresh details of a probe that will test the new government's commitment to cleaning up corruption. Closed-door legal proceedings were underway.
The Associated Press reported exclusively Feb. 4 that a government investigation into lucrative illicit weapons sales by officials loyal to former president Leonid Kuchma, who left office in January, had led to secret indictments or arrests of at least six arms dealers accused of selling missiles to Iran and China.
Twelve of the missiles went to Iran and six to China, Prosecutor General Svyatoslav Piskun's office said Friday. The Kh55 cruise missiles have a range of 1,860 miles.
The office stressed the weapons were sold illegally, not exported by state enterprises, and that it was Kuchma's government which launched the probe. Nevertheless, the investigation could further tarnish the former leader's reputation and spark new calls for prosecution.
"The proceedings against persons implicated have been forwarded to the Kiev Court of Appeals and are being heard behind closed doors," the statement said.
In Washington, State Department deputy spokesman Adam Ereli welcomed the Ukrainian investigation, saying U.S. and Ukrainian authorities had discussed the case, but he did not know whether there were deliveries to China and Iran.
"I think it is fair to say that both the U.S. government and the Ukrainian government share a common concern and a dedication to acting to prevent or to find out and prevent cases of proliferation. That's certainly true in this instance," Ereli said.
Vyacheslav Astapov, a spokesman for the prosecutor's office, named one of the accused, Volodymyr Yevdokimov, whom he identified as the director of a cargo company, Ukraviazakaz.
He refused to provide other details, and it was unclear whether other suspects were involved in the proceedings at the court, which handles all sensitive cases.
At least three people were arrested and another three were indicted last year in connection with the illicit arms trade, an intelligence official told the AP on condition of anonymity in February.
In the Feb. 4 story, the AP reported that six missiles smuggled out of Ukraine purportedly ended up in Iran and six in China, although export documents known as end-user certificates recorded the final recipient of some 20 Kh55 missiles as Russia's Defense Ministry, according to a letter from legislator Hrihoriy Omelchenko to President Viktor Yushchenko.
There was no suggestion of Russian government involvement in the alleged smuggling operation.
Omelchenko did not say at the time what happened to the eight other missiles.
The missiles allegedly sold to Iran were unarmed.
The United States accuses Iran of trying to develop a nuclear arms program -- an allegation Tehran denies.
Iran does not operate long-range bombers, but it is believed that Tehran could adapt its Soviet-built Su-24 strike aircraft to launch the missile. The missile's range would put Israel and a number of other U.S. allies within reach.
China is a declared nuclear weapons state. In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry officials were not available for comment Friday.
According to Omelchenko, a Russian national named Oleg Orlov and a Ukrainian partner identified as E.V. Shilenko were involved in the illegal exports in 2000.
Both men are among eight suspects listed in a 2004 Security Service report Omelchenko cited, and prosecutors indicted them in absentia last year for illegal weapons trading.
Orlov was detained July 13 in the Czech Republic and an extradition procedure is under way to return him to Ukraine for prosecution, the Prosecutor General's office said Friday. Shilenko remains at large; the office said a warrant has been issued for his arrest.
Omelchenko dismissed Friday's statement by prosecutors as a "political trick" by Piskun to keep his post in the face of calls by pro-Yushchenko lawmakers for his resignation, and accused him of keeping information under wraps long after he knew it.
Piskun was chief prosecutor under Kuchma and retained his job after Yushchenko, a Kuchma opponent, came to power in January.
The intelligence official who spoke to the AP last month said the investigation into alleged illicit arms dealing began quietly well over a year ago -- during Kuchma's presidency.
But Yushchenko vowed to aggressively pursue the allegations, which included a separate U.S. claim that Kuchma approved the sale of sophisticated Kolchuga radar systems to Saddam Hussein's Iraq despite U.N. sanctions.
Kuchma has denied the allegations, which stem from secret recordings made by a former bodyguard who fled Ukraine after revealing the tapes and now lives in the United States.
Omelchenko said Friday the recordings suggested illicit weapons deals were made "according to the president's authorization."
"That gives us grounds to say that Kuchma is an accessory of the illegal selling of military property, weapons, including weapons of mass destruction," he said.