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Stavropol Police Smash Arms Ring

Top officials could be implicated in an arms smuggling ring operated from inside the Stavropol police force
By Yuri Akbashev

A Stavropol police captain and five constables have been arrested on suspicion of selling thousands of firearms seized from Chechen rebels during the Russian military campaigns.

Captain Alexander Popov was the officer in charge of the Stavropol police warehouse where the weapons were stored prior to being decommissioned.

According to the Stavropol prosecutor's office, the arms ring was smashed during a joint undercover operation with RUOP - the Regional Directorate for the Fight Against Organised Crime.

At the end of last year, Stavropol police were tipped off that large consignments of Nagan, Makarov, Stechkin and TT handguns were being smuggled into the North Caucasus region.

They launched Operation Partner - a daring plan to infiltrate the gang and identify its leader who had previously worked exclusively through middle men.

Make-up artists from the Stavropol Drama Theatre were invited to disguise the undercover officers so that they would be unrecognisable to their colleagues in the police force.

The Operation Partner operatives were stunned when the trail led them to Captain Popov and the staff at the police armoury. The deputy head of the Stavropol GUVD, Colonel Ivan Lakhnenko, told journalists, "This has been a complete shock for everyone working in the police department."

The sheer size of the operation was unprecedented. Partner officers raided more than a dozen hideouts across Stavropol and confiscated 25,000 5.6mm bullets, six mortars, two heavy machine-guns, 100 pistols and revolvers, 150 grenades and assorted bomb-making equipment.

It soon emerged that Popov was selling on weapons which had been confiscated by Russian troops during the Chechen campaign. They were kept at Popov's warehouse prior to being sent on to the smelting works in Stavropol. Officially these weapons had ceased to exist.

Andrei Guskov, senior investigator at the local prosecutor's office, said it is was possible the firearms were being sold back to their original owners.

In 2000 alone, said Guskov, more than 4,000 weapons were sent to the warehouse - and a total of more than 25,000 during the five years Popov had worked there.

He added that it was likely Popov was protected by friends in high places. The arms dealers had succeeded in concealing their activities from an interior ministry commission which had conducted a comprehensive investigation of the Stavropol police department in the autumn of 2000.

The Stavropol police department has been hit by a series of scandals over the past five years, with five successive police chiefs being appointed during this time. The name of one former police general has been linked to alleged arms sales to Chechen president Djokhar Dudaev as early as 1989.

Yuri Akbashev is a regular IWPR contributor

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