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GlobalSecurity.org In the News

Rutland Herald (VT) April 29, 2004

Vt.-bound assault rifles apparently legal

By Darren M. Allen And Bruce Edwards
Staff Writers

MONTPELIER - Thousands of assault weapons suspected by Italian customs officials of being smuggled aboard a cargo ship were apparently legally on their way to a Vermont warehouse, federal authorities said Wednesday.

The 7,500 AK-47s, valued at $6 million, and other weapons were aboard a Turkish-flagged ship that was on its way from Romania to New York.

The ship was stopped nearly three weeks ago in the Italian port of Gioia Tauro. Its contents became suspect when Italian authorities noted discrepancies on customs forms, according to U.S. officials. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials were notified by their Italian counterparts.

But Century International Arms Inc. of Boca Raton, Fla., was properly licensed to import the assault weapons, according to a spokesman from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

"There are valid permits issued," said Andrew Lluberes, a bureau spokesman in Washington, D.C. "If what's on that boat matches what's on the permits, then the shipment will go through."

The weapons remained in Italy, where customs officials continued to work with investigators there. Before the weapons make their way to Century's Franklin County warehouse, they likely will be inspected by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents when they arrive in New York, Lluberes said.

"I think it's a fair assumption that the boat will get attention when it arrives here," he said.

News of the arms shipment caught Vermont officials by surprise last week when New York newspaper reports called the seizure an international probe of arms that are sought by terrorists.

Some were concerned to learn that AK-47s were bound for a warehouse only minutes from the Canadian border. Others worried that a potentially illegal stash of semi-automatic assault rifles was on its way to the Vermont.

Century, which bills itself as the continent's "largest importer and exporter of surplus firearms and _accessories," declined to comment. The company, which has a warehouse in Fairfax, has been in business in Vermont since 1961.

And while last week's reports of illegal arms on their way to Vermont appear to be exaggerated, Century has a history of run-ins with controversy.

The Montreal Gazette reported in May 1988 that John Rugg, a former Vermont police chief and a manager at Century Arms Inc., told a U.S. Senate committee investigating illegal weapons shipments to the Contra rebels in Nicaragua, that Century International Arms and Trans World Arms Ltd., which both have offices in Montreal, were involved in shipping grenades, surface-to-air-missiles, rifles and ammunition from Canada to Central America in violation of Canadian policy of non-military intervention in the Americas.

Attempts to reach Rugg Wednesday at his St. Albans home were unsuccessful.

In 2000, authorities in Canada and the U.S. broke up what they called the largest firearms smuggling operation in North America. Authorities in both countries seized 23,000 firearms.

The firearms seized in Montreal and Toronto were destined for Reno, Nev., according to a story that appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press. The firearms were seized after search warrants were executed at Century International Arms in Montreal, and at arms dealers in Toronto and Reno.

The seizures included 21,000 receivers (which make a firearm operational) and 1,700 M1 Garand rifles, the standard rifle used by the U.S. military in World War II.

The Winnipeg newspaper reported that the arms had been registered legally in Canada, but then shipped illegally to the U.S. with the weapons shipment labeled as truck parts.

Nine years ago, the company wore out its welcome in Bangor, Maine, where it leased space at the Bangor International Airport to warehouse and reconfigure foreign automatic and artillery pieces for resale, the Bangor Daily News reported.

The board that oversees the free-trade zone at the airport voted in May 1994, not to renew the lease, though it said at the time the reasons were economic.

The 3,000-square-foot facility received a number of arms shipments. The newspaper, citing city records, reported that arms shipments included Beretta handguns and 9 mm ammunition from Italy, 5,500 SKS rifles from China shipped to Revere, Mass., and 20 fully automatic NATO-type M14s destined for Marseille, France.

The company has had other problems as well. Russia's state arms exporting company sued Century in Canada for allegedly failing to pay $2.5 million for a shipment of SKS carbines, Russia's Interfax News Agency reported. In 1998, the International Arbitration Court in Zurich ruled in favor of the Russian company.

A person familiar with Century said the company is, indeed, a major arms dealer with close connections to the U.S. government.

According to the arms expert, former company president Emmanuel Weigensberg of Montreal (who later was president of Trans World Arms) was one of the biggest names in the arms business "and had a lot of connections to the U.S. government," including its intelligence services.

He said Weigensberg became involved in what became known as the Iran-Contra affair - the illegal arms-for-hostages deal - helping the Contras on behalf of Richard Secord.

Secord was a retired Air Force general who worked for Oliver North and the National Security Agency to free American hostages held in Iran.

The Toronto Star reported that in 1988 Weigensberg admitted to Canadian intelligence that while president of Trans World Arms, he shipped arms to Guatemala in 1985, but was not aware the arms ended up in another country.

David Isenberg, an arms control expert with British American Security Information Council in Washington, said Wednesday while they are larger players on the world stage involved in the surplus arms trade than Century, small arms proliferation takes a terrible human toll.

"There's a saying in the arms-control community that small arms are the real weapons of mass destruction," Isenberg said. "Everybody hyperventilates about the probability of a state or some group obtaining nuclear, chemical or biological weapons, but that's primarily theoretical."

Unlike WMDs, he said small arms are easily available, widely transferred, hard to monitor and difficult to interdict.

"They kill more people than any weapon in the arsenal of the world currently," he said.

The proliferation in surplus arms sales took off following the end of the Cold War, according to John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org, a Web-based nonprofit group dedicated to reducing armed conflict.

"After the Cold War ended you had a tremendous drawdown of military surplus that came onto the market," Pike said.

Pike added that while companies like Century International Arms are one source of surplus arms, the major players are often governments like Nigeria and Ukraine where anything and everything is for sale.

According to published reports, Century International Arms was founded in St. Albans in 1961. In August 1984, the company changed hands.

The Vermont secretary of state's office lists Philip Warren as president, Phyllis Sucher, vice president; Brian Sucher, secretary; and Michael Sucher, treasurer.

The Suchers are listed as the only directors of the company, which lists its address as 236 Bryce Boulevard in Fairfax.

Contact Darren Allen at darren.allen@rutlandherald.com and Bruce Edwards at bruce.edwards@rutlandherald.com.

Copyright 2004, Rutland Herald and Barre-Montpelier Times Argus