(Reuters) – Nigerian authorities dropped charges on Tuesday against eight Russian sailors suspected of trafficking arms, their lawyer said, but another seven will face trial.
The 15 Russian sailors were charged with illegally bringing weapons into Nigeria last year, after Nigerian authorities intercepted a ship on October 23, saying they had found several guns and thousands of rounds of ammunition.
The court case has raised tensions between Nigeria and¬†Russia, whose Foreign Ministry has spoken out against the charges. Russian media have reported assurances from Nigeria that the sailors would be allowed to return home. Nigeria has not commented on this alleged promise.
Their defense lawyer Abubakar Onegbu told reporters outside the court that the charges had been dropped because they had not been on the ship when it was detained, but had arrived by air to carry out a crew change. The prosecuting counsel was not available for comment.
Justice James Soho adjourned the trial of the others until Friday. They are free on bail.
“In general we regard this development a positive step,” Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Tuesday evening. “We expect a similar decision to be taken (in regard to seven remaining sailors) at the upcoming court sitting.”
Arms smuggling to and through Nigeria is rife. Demand for weapons is high because of an Islamist rebellion in the north, armed robbery and kidnapping by gangs in the south and oil theft and piracy in the southeast.
The country is also sometimes used as a conduit for shipping arms to other conflict-ridden parts of West Africa.
(Reporting Angela Ukomadu, additional reporting by Gabriela Baczynska in Moscow, Writing by Tim Cocks; Editing by Michael Roddy)