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Sunday, March 3, 2013 - Page updated at 04:00 p.m.

Chinese anti-aircraft missiles seized aboard Iranian vessel

By C.J. CHIVERSROBERT F. WORTH
The New York Times

An Iranian dhow seized off the Yemeni coast was carrying sophisticated Chinese anti-aircraft missiles, a development that could signal an escalation of Iran’s support to its Middle Eastern proxies, alarming other countries in the region and renewing a diplomatic challenge to the United States.

Among the items aboard the dhow, according to a review of factory markings on weapons and their packing crates, were 10 Chinese heat-seeking anti-aircraft missiles, most of them manufactured in 2005.

The missiles were labeled QW-1M and bore stencils suggesting that they had been assembled at a factory represented by the state-owned China National Precision Machinery Import and Export Corporation, sanctioned by the United States for transfers of missile technology to Pakistan and Iran.

The Chinese missiles were part of a larger shipment interdicted by U.S. and Yemeni forces in January, which U.S. and Yemeni officials say was intended for the Houthi rebels in northwestern Yemen. But the presence of the missiles in the seized contraband complicates an already politically delicate case.

The shipment, which officials portray as an attempt to introduce sophisticated new anti-aircraft systems into the Arabian Peninsula, has raised concerns in Saudi Arabia, Oman and Yemen, as the weapons would have posed escalated risks to civilian and military aircraft alike.

And it has presented the Obama administration with a fresh example of Iran’s apparent transfer of modern missiles from China to insurgents in the larger regional contest between Sunni-led and Shiite-led states, in which the U.S. military has often been entwined.

The United States has previously accused Iran, a Shiite-led theocracy, of sending weapons to the Houthis, who follow an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Saudi Arabia, a U.S. ally, is considered the leading Sunni power in the region. Both sides have aided and equipped groups or governments they deem aligned with their interests, helping to fuel violence in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, Sudan and elsewhere.

Iran has rejected the allegations as “baseless and absurd.” Neither the Iranian government nor the Chinese firm that markets QW missiles answered written requests for comment.

The government of Yemen has asked the United Nations to investigate the shipment and report the findings to the Security Council. Yemeni news media reported that U.N. experts were in Yemen last week.

The analysis of the weapons’ markings and origins was based on photographs taken when Yemeni officials briefly displayed the weapons to journalists.

Concerns over sophisticated Chinese missiles reaching Iran’s proxies have considerable regional history. They are part of both the larger worries over anti-aircraft weapons set loose by conflicts across the Middle East in the past decade and the lingering frustration in Washington over China’s military aid to Iran.

The latest discovery of Chinese missiles came after the U.S. Navy detected the dhow, the Jeehan 1, as it took on cargo in an Iranian military-controlled port. The vessel then embarked on a high-seas smuggling run, according to accounts by Yemeni and U.S. officials.

That cargo also included 316,000 cartridges for Kalashnikov rifles, nearly 63,000 cartridges for PK machine guns or the Dragunov series of sniper rifles, more than 12,000 cartridges for 12.7-millimeter DShK machine guns and 95 RPG-7 launchers.

The captain and crew of the Jeehan 1 remain in Yemeni detention, and the dhow has been impounded under Yemeni custody, a Yemeni official said.


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