Stinger Missiles Aplenty Despite CIA Buyback

IN RECENT YEARS, the CIA has been trying to buy back Stinger missiles originally sent to Afghan guerrillas. But with new ones being manufactured and reports that while the black market pays $200,000 for each missile, the CIA pays only $68,000, Stingers are spreading worldwide. A look at who's buying and why.

The high roller from Russia caromed from casino to club to call-girl soiree, drinking in the high life of London. Then Ruslan Outsiev got down to business, on "special instructions" from home, and ended up rolled up in a carpet with three bullets in his head.

Outsiev was one of the latest to fail - in his case, fatally - in the quest for the Stinger missile.

In a time of dirty little wars fought by desperate little armies, this hand-carried, shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missile tops the shopping lists of warlords worldwide.

Deadly as they are in guerrilla wars, they would become nightmares if drug cartels or terrorists used them to turn commercial air lanes into free-fire zones.

Over the past 13 years, more than 50,000 of the 5-foot missiles have been produced for the U.S. military and 16 other governments. They keep them under tight security, but hundreds of other Stingers, shipped by the CIA to anti-communist rebels in Afghanistan and Angola, are believed to be feeding a multimillion-dollar black market.

Russian oil region has the cash

For Ruslan Outsiev, the Stinger's appeal lay in the alliances of the former Soviet Union.

Outsiev, 38, was a leader in the movement to make southern Russia's Chechnya oil region an independent state. He went to London to arrange for banknotes, stamps and other trappings of nationhood, Scotland Yard investigators said.

Outsiev's fatal mistake was in his choice of an Armenian interpreter. After Outsiev's murder, the Chechen leadership would say only that he had been acting on "special instructions." But the interpreter learned that Outsiev was to buy hundreds of black-market Stingers.

The interpreter tipped off Armenia, which determined the Stingers were bound for the Chechens' fellow Muslims in Azerbaijan, for use against Armenia's aircraft in the war between those two former Soviet republics. The interpreter and an Armenian gunman were ordered to kill Outsiev, investigators said.

Outsiev was shot last February, but the Armenians were discovered. The gunman confessed, told detectives about the Stinger connection, then hanged himself in jail. The interpreter was convicted of murder in October and sentenced to life in prison.

Who was selling the Stingers? Scotland Yard says it doesn't know.

Hundreds of Stingers would have cost a fortune. The Stinger sells legitimately for around $30,000. But the Pakistani press says Afghans have been getting more than $200,000 per Stinger in Pakistan's arms market.

The CIA was offering $68,000 a missile at last report, although that price is believed to be rising.

And despite some criminal arrests, Stingers are spreading.

Tajikistan: Islamic rebels in the former Soviet republic, allied with the Afghans, last May shot down an Su-25 fighter-bomber with a Stinger, the Russian media reported.

Georgia: Muslim Abkhazian separatists in the former Soviet republic shot down three airliners earlier this year, killing 126 people. The weapons used were not identified, but Abkhazian leaders earlier indicated they had obtained Stingers via the Russian military.

Bosnia: A preliminary investigation blamed a Stinger for last year's downing of an Italian U.N. supply plane. Some dispute this, but a general in Bosnia's Muslim-led army told a reporter last year that Bosnia had obtained Stingers.

Russian military making copies

Moreover, potential sources are proliferating. Under U.S. license, Stingers are now also made in Germany and Switzerland. Russia's military is producing near-Stingers of its own. And authorized recipients might "leak" weapons to others.

Two years ago, Saudi Arabia was reported to have pushed a plan for Washington to supply Iraq's Kurdish rebels with Stingers. The Bush administration was said to have balked. But the Saudis have their own U.S.-supplied Stingers.

"What's to stop them from passing them on?" asked Christopher Foss, a missile specialist for Jane's defense publications in London. "Unless you go there once a year and do a spot check, you don't know. And I don't know what the Americans could do about it."

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In four recent cases, U.S. undercover agents broke up attempts to illegally buy Stinger portable anti-aircraft missiles:

Irish Republican Army: Three Irishmen were convicted in Florida in 1990 of trying to buy a Stinger for the IRA to use against British forces in Northern Ireland. Caught in a Customs undercover operation. Sentenced to four-year prison terms.

Iran: An American and a Canadian pleaded guilty in 1990 in New York in a scheme to sell Stingers to Iran. They intended somehow to get them from Israeli stocks. A Customs undercover operation stopped the plan in its early stages. The American was sentenced to time already served, and the Canadian to community service and probation.

Medellin cartel: One Colombian pleaded guilty and another was convicted in connection with an attempt in 1990 in Florida to buy 120 Stingers and export them to their homeland. They claimed links to the Medellin drug cartel. FBI undercover operation. Sentenced to four-and five-year prison terms.

Croatians: A Chicago-area gun dealer and three Croatians were arrested in Florida in 1991 in an alleged scheme to buy Stingers for the secessionist former Yugoslav republic of Croatia. Customs undercover operation. Trial set for next month.

Associated Press