Iran's Revolutionary Guards have stolen dozens of sophisticated Russian-made surface-to-air missiles from Libya and smuggled them across the border to neighbouring Sudan, Western intelligence said, The Telegraph reported.
The weapons were seized by units attached to the Guards' elite Quds Force, which travelled to Libya from their base in southern Sudan.
Acting on orders received from Revolutionary Guards commanders in Iran, they took advantage of the chaos that engulfed Libya following the collapse of the regime of former dictator Colonel Muammar Gaddafi to seize "significant quantities" of advanced weaponry, military intelligence officers in Libya said.
They say the weapons stolen by Iran include sophisticated Russian-made SA-24 missiles that were sold to Libya in 2004. The missile can shoot down aircraft flying at 11,000 feet, and is regarded as the Russian equivalent of the American "stinger" missiles.
Intelligence officials believe the missiles and other weapons seized from Gaddafi's abandoned arsenals were smuggled across the Libyan border to southern Sudan earlier this month where they are now believed to be held at a secret storage facility run by the Revolutionary Guards at al-Fashir, the capital of North Darfur. Some of the missiles are also reported to have been smuggled into Egypt.
The governments of Iran and Sudan recently signed a defence cooperation pact, and hundreds of Revolutionary Guards are based in Sudan where they help to train the Sudanese military and help to support the Sudanese government's campaign against rebel groups.
Intelligence officials now fear that the missiles and other weapons will fall into the hands of extremists and will be used to carry out terror attacks.
In the past Iran has been accused of smuggling weapons from Sudan to the Gaza Strip, where they have been used to launch attacks against Israel. In 2009 Israeli warplanes bombed an Iranian arms convoy in Sudan that was carrying weapons to Hamas militants based in Gaza.
Tons of weaponry, including thousands of shoulder-held surface-to-air missiles, has been stolen from Gaddafi's abandoned depots since his regime was overthrown by rebel forces in August. Much of the weaponry, which includes mortars and anti-tank weapons, has been smuggled across the border to Algeria, where there are growing fears within Western intelligence circles that they may fall into the hands of al-Qaeda and other Islamist terror groups.
Some military experts have sought to play down the important of the surface-to-air missiles, arguing that militant groups lack the knowhow and the equipment to fire them.
But this would not be an issue for the Revolutionary Guards, who have specialist training in firing such weapons. The fear now is that Iran will use the Libyan weapons to equip terror groups in the region.
"Iran is actively supporting a number of militant Islamist groups in Egypt, Gaza and southern Lebanon, so there is concern that these sophisticated weapons will fall into the hands of terror groups," said a senior intelligence officer. "If the SA-24 missiles fall into the wrong hands then no civilian aircraft in the region will be safe from attack."
American and European intelligence agencies have now launched a coordinated effort to track down the missing weapons in North Africa to make sure they cannot be used for a fresh wave of terrorist attacks against Western targets.