Libya likely destination for Italy's confiscated weaponry
The haul, which was described by one military expert as "enough to start and win a small war", included 400 anti-tank missiles and 50 launchers for them; 30,000 AK47s; 5,000 Katusha rockets; 11,000 anti-tank rockets and 32 million rounds of small arms ammunition.
All of the Russian-made weapons were seized in 1994 by the Italian navy acting on information from British intelligence, which had been tracking the vessel carrying them following information from a spy.
The Italian navy intercepted the freighter Jadran Express as it sailed off the coast of Italy in the Channel of Otranto towards the Balkans, which at the time was the scene of bitter fighting as the former Yugoslavia fell apart.
Prosecutors opened a criminal investigation, and eight people were put on trial in Turin accused of arms trafficking but they were cleared. Among them was Russian oligarch Alexander Zhukov, whose daughter Dasha is the partner of Chelsea supremo Roman Abramovich.
Following the trial, an order was signed for the weapons to be destroyed, but it has now emerged that they were shipped to a storage bunker on the Italian island of Sardinia, which was formerly used by the American navy for nuclear arms.
Two months ago, the weapons were shipped to the Italian mainland on commercial passenger ferries - an unusual step - with the final destination thought to be Libyan rebels.
Italy is the former colonial power in Libya, and the Italian government is highly sympathetic to the rebels' cause. Qatar is the main country that has taken a lead in arming them, with some help from the French.
Yesterday, prosecutors in Sardinia investigating the final destination were told that no information was available as the prime minister Silvio Berlusconi's office had placed a "state secret order" on the where-abouts of the weapons.
During the original trial in Turin, the court heard how the Maltese-registered freighter had been intercepted off the Italian coast and escorted into the port of Taranto.
The trial was told that a secret agent had planted a tracking device on the ship and its movements were being monitored via satellite by British intelligence.
The case was heard in Turin because it emerged that money allegedly used to buy the weapons had passed through two firms based in the city, with Zhukov being in charge of one of them.
Mr Zhukov is the grandson of Marshall Giorgji Zhukov, the most highly-decorated Soviet military commander of the Second World War.A spokesman for Sardinia-based prosecutor Riccardo Rossi yesterday said: "All attempts to get any information from the ministry of defence in Rome have proved fruitless as we have been told the episode is covered by state secret.
"All we want to know is where the weapons are now, were they removed safely and was there any risk to the passengers and crew of the ferry when they were shipped?" he added Three Sardinian MPs, Gian Piero Scanu, Giulio Calvisi and Elio Lanutti have also tabled questions asking the whereabouts of the weapons, but have been given no answer.
One Italian military expert, who asked not to be named, said: "The fact that an order of secrecy has been placed on the whole affair is also very intriguing - you have to wonder if the government has spirited these weapons out of the country."