Briton wanted to sell 50 missiles to shoot down American commercial planes, prosecutors say

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The Independent US

A Briton caught in a sting operation in the United States while allegedly trying to sell a shoulder-launched missile to secret agents posing as terrorists intended to sell them at least 50 of the weapons, authorities said yesterday.

A US judge last night ordered that Hemant Lakhani, 68, be held without bail. He was charged with attempting to provide material support and resources to terrorists, and dealing arms without a licence. Prosecutors said he believed the missiles would be used to shoot down American commercial planes.

Evidence against Mr Lakhani will include video and audio tapes of his conversations with secret agents whom he believed to be members of a Somali terror group and his future customers. In them, he calls Americans "bastards" and says he considered the al- Qa'ida attacks of 11 September were a "good thing".

The single missile, a Russian-made Russian SA-18 Igla, was allegedly offered by Mr Lakhani as a sample of more to come. He told his purported buyers to commit to future deliveries of at least 50 missiles and asked for a 10 per cent "good faith" down-payment of $500,000, prosecutors said.

About 15 officers from Scotland Yard's anti-terrorist branch searched Mr Lakhani's home in north London on Tuesday after a request for help from the FBI. A second property, thought to be an office used by Mr Lakhani, was also raided in London at about the same time. The arrest of Mr Lakhani at a Newark, New Jersey, hotel on Tuesday ended an 18-month intelligence operation between anti-terror officials in the US, Britain and Russia. It began when the FBI in New Jersey had a tip-off that Mr Lakhani was trying to buy weapons in St Petersburg.

The defendant has been living in London since 1974 with his wife Kusum, 66, after moving from India. They have British citizenship. Before the sting operation, he was not known to the security services in Britain and is thought to have imported and exported clothes from an office in central London as well as being an arms dealer.

At no time did his activities pose any real threat to the United States. The missile that he offered to undercover agents on Tuesday had been under the control of the intelligence services at all times and was a dud. And Mr Lakhani never made contact with any genuine terror groups.

But US officials hailed his arrest as breakthrough. "This is an incredible triumph in the war against terrorism in this country," Christopher Christie, the US District Attorney for New Jersey, said. He added that the defendant, "knew full well that the arms dealing he was engaging in ... was an attempt to kill US citizens and to try to shake the stability of our American economy".

The affair has already brought fresh calls on President George Bush from Congress to authorise a multi-billion-dollar programme to equip all large commercial airliners in the US with missile -detection devices.

Also arrested in the sting were two residents of the New York area, allegedly recruited by Mr Lakhani to assist in setting up the necessary financial transactions for the deal. Offices said to be connected to the men, Moinuddeen Ahmed Hameed and Yehuda Abraham, were raided by police in the gem district of midtown Manhattan in New York also on Tuesday. Both face money-laundering charges.

Mr Lakhani and his family moved house three years ago from a £250,000 property in Hendon, north London, to a house near by, worth £700,000. Yesterday a green BMW was parked in the drive of Mr Lakhani's semi-detached four-bedroom house.