ABUJA, Nigeria — Nigerian intelligence officials and diplomats have concluded that the Iranian government was behind a secret shipment of weapons discovered last month in shipping containers, according to internal documents seen Thursday by The Associated Press.
Immediately after the arms seizure, Israeli officials accused Iran of trying to sneak the shipment into the Gaza Strip, but Nigeria's security service now believes the arms were imported by some local politicians to destabilize Nigeria if they lose in the coming general elections.
The cargo that was shipped from an Iranian port was listed as building materials but when the 13 containers were opened at Nigeria's main port in Lagos, inspectors found 107mm artillery rockets, rifle rounds and arms.
Contacted by phone, Iranian Ambassador Hussein Abdullahi declined to immediately discuss the allegations, telling AP he was meeting with Nigerian officials about the same issues. Previously, Abdullahi said there is no clear evidence linking his government to the weapons.
Nigerian investigators who followed a paper trail learned that Iran's foreign ministry endorsed a Nigerian visa application for one of the two Iranians who allegedly shipped the weapons, saying he would work at the Iranian Embassy in Abuja, Nigeria's capital.
The Nigerian government reports, seen by an AP reporter, identify Iranians Azimi Agajany and Sayed Akbar Tahmaesebi as the men who organized the shipment through a Tehran-based company called International Trading and General Construction. Nigerian officials suspect the two men are currently hiding inside the Iranian Embassy in Abuja, Nigeria's capital.
The reports say Agajany received a visa to travel to Nigeria after getting an endorsement from Sheikh Ali Abbas Othman, also known as Abbas Jega, a Nigerian who worked for Radio Tehran's Hausa language service and studied in Iran. Jega has been arrested by Nigeria's State Security Service, a Nigerian government official told the AP.
Tahmaesebi received his visa after Nigerian authorities received a letter of recommendation from Iran's foreign ministry that said he would "provide administrative support" at its Abuja embassy, the reports say.
The two Iranians remain at large.
"We strongly believe they are hiding in the embassy but we cannot prove it," the Nigerian official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the diplomatic sensitivity of the reports. Embassies are considered to be sovereign territory, not subject to searches by the host country.
Displaying a lack of knowledge about Nigeria's geography, Agajany initially wanted the consignments shipped to Abuja, the documents said. When Agajany was told there is no port in Abuja, which lies hundreds of miles (kilometers) from the coast, he came up with Lagos as the destination.
CMA CGM, an international cargo shipper based in France, has said one of its cargo ships picked up the shipping containers from Bandar Abbas, a port in southern Iran. The company said the shipment, which stopped in Mumbai's port before heading to Lagos, had been labeled as "packages of glass wool and pallets of stone."
The containers sat at Lagos' busy Apapa port from July until Oct. 26, when Nigerian security agents carried out a raid and discovered the weapons inside.
AP journalists who went to the port after the raid saw 107mm artillery rockets, rifle rounds and other items labeled in English. The rockets can accurately hit targets more than 5 miles (8.5 kilometers) away with a 40-foot (12-meter) killing radius. Insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq have used similar rockets against U.S. troops. China, the United States, and Russia manufacture versions of the rocket, as does Iran.
Immediately after the arms seizure, Israeli officials accused Iran of trying to sneak the shipment into the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Nigerian officials instead believe the weapons were to remain in their country, where presidential elections that could be intensely contested are scheduled to be held early next year.
Nigeria has a predominantly Muslim north and Christian south. Targeted killings allegedly committed by a radical Islamic sect have been shaking the north while militants have launched attacks in the oil-rich southern delta.
Nigeria, a country of 150 million and Africa's most populous nation, embraced democracy only a decade ago after a string of military dictatorships and coups.
By shipping arms to the country, Iran may be attempting to "tweak" Western powers by showing it can influence affairs in a country vital to U.S. oil supplies, said David Bender, a Washington-based analyst who studies Iran for the Eurasia Group.
"From their perspective, it doesn't cost anything," Bender said. "But it gives the impression that they are a global player."