VARESE, Italy -- Italian investigators cracked what was called 'the world's biggest illegal arms trafficking organization' that sent millions of weapons to the Middle East in return for heroin and other drugs.
Judge Carlo Palermo, in charge of the investigation, told a news conference in Varese Wednesday the arms sent to various Middle East countries by the organization based in nearby Milan included helicopters, German Leopard tanks and machine guns.
In return the organization brought into Italy heroin and other drugs through agents in Turkey and other Middle East countries, the judge said.
The judge said most of the drugs went to northern Europe, but some also went to southern Italy and Sicily, where the Mafia is running a multi-million dollar racket smuggling drugs to the United States.
'We have cracked the world's biggest illegal arms trafficking organization, which had Milan and the Middle East as its terminals,' Palermo said.
'Over a period of years they sent millions of war weapons, including heavy tanks and helicopters, to the Middle East, for which they were paid in narcotics.'
The judge said 41 members of the ring have been arrested and would face trial in February. Arrest warrants have been issued against another 159 suspects, but action on these would depend on the outcome of the continuing investigation, he said.
The investigation started in December 1980 as a routine investigation into drug running in the Milan area.
A Turk named Asim Akkaia reportedly gave police information that led to the discovery of 310 pounds of heroin buried in zinc packets near a villa in Bolzano and a hotel in Trento, in the Alpine region of northeast Italy.
But the judge said the full extent of the arms-for-drugs ring emerged only recently when police arrested Henri Arsan, 70, a Syrian, in Varese. Palermo described Arsan as 'a big shot in the world scene' of arms trafficking.
Police also jailed Arsan's Italian wife Giovanna, 54, on charges of taking part in illegal arms and drug trafficking.
From documents found in Arsan's possession police located the headquarters of the ring in an import-export company in Milan called Stibam International Transport.
The judge gave no indication where the tanks and helicopters came from, but press reports said the gang had links with weapons manufacturers in France, West Germany and Belgium.
The Stibam firm and its Turkish agents used 'their own means of transport' to get the arms to various Middle East countries and the drugs to Italy. The judge did not spell out what these means were but indicated some of the consignments went overland in trailer-trucks.
Some of the trucks traveled through Turkey, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia and Greece.
In the course of the investigation Italian police arrested a Turkish suspect and jailed him in Trento, but he managed to escape by sawing through his cell bars and lowering himself to the street by a rope made of torn-up bedsheets.