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U.S. charges 8 over 'Tiger plot'

Group tried to buy missiles, bribe officials, prosecutors say

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Sri Lankan armored army vehicles conduct a patrol near the town of Trincomalee.

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NEW YORK (CNN) -- Eight men have been charged with plotting to buy surface-to-air missiles for Sri Lanka's Tamil Tiger rebels, U.S. federal prosecutors have announced.

The men also are accused of plotting to bribe U.S. State Department officials into removing the Tamil Tiger group from a list of terrorist organizations and of trying to obtain classified information.

All eight are charged with conspiracy to provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization, according to the U.S. Attorney's office in New York.

Prosecutors said the men were "closely connected" to the Tamil Tiger leadership, but disclosed little else about the suspects.

According to prosecutors, the men conspired to buy surface-to-air missiles from a black-market source in the United States. They also sought to have the group -- formally known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam -- removed from the U.S. list of terrorist organizations and obtain classified intelligence by bribing State Department officials.

"As charged for more than 15 years, the LTTE has waged a war of terror, assassinations, and suicide bombings in Sri Lanka and elsewhere," Roslyn Mauskopf, the U.S. attorney in Brooklyn, said in a statement announcing the charges. "We refuse to allow the LTTE and its supporters to use the United States as a source of supply for weapons, technology, and financial resources."

The group was made up of Canadian and Sri Lankan nationals, and only one was living in the United States, said Bob Nardoza, a spokesman for Mauskopf's office. The investigation was still going on, and more arrests were expected, Nardoza said.

The Tamil Tigers have fought for a separate homeland for Sri Lanka's ethnic Tamil minority for decades in a conflict that has killed tens of thousands of people. The group was behind the 1993 assassination of Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa and the 1991 killing of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

The State Department added the Tamil Tigers to its list of international terrorist organizations in 1997, barring it from raising money, obtaining weaponry or lobbying for support in the United States.

The defendants -- Sathajhan Sarachandran, Sahilal Sabaratnam, Thiruthanikan Thanigasalm, Nadarasa Yograrasa, Murugesu Vinayagamoorthy, Nachimuthu Socrates, Vijayshanthar Patpanathan, and Thirukumaran Sivasubramaniam -- were being held without bail and had initial appearances before a federal judge in Brooklyn on Monday, Nardoza said.

E-mail accounts

Prosecutors said Vinayagamoorthy and Socrates met an informant and two people posing as State Department officials numerous times beginning in 2004, offering them $1 million in advance to get the LTTE off the terrorism list and to provide U.S. secrets to the group. The plan was later shelved, according to court papers.

Reached at his home in Simsbury, Connecticut, Nachimuthu Socrates' son, Aristotle Socrates, told CNN that the charges were "absurd," that his father was innocent and that he would be contesting the charges.

Socrates said his father was a businessman who had lived in Simsbury for 24 years.

"They've made a gross miscalculation," he said.

Three of the defendants traveled to New York from Canada last week in an attempt to purchase hand-held anti-aircraft missiles from an undercover FBI agent, prosecutors said.

Those three, and a fourth defendant, were arrested on Long Island last week, prosecutors said.

Attempts to reach any of the defendants or their attorneys were unsuccessful.

According to court papers, the defendants wanted the missiles to bring down Sri Lankan government warplanes.

Prosecutors allege the defendants also used several U.S. e-mail accounts to make inquiries about buying weapons; unmanned aerial vehicles; submarine design software; flight lessons; and radio and satellite-navigation equipment.

CNN's Shannon Troetel contributed to this report.

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