Judge Acquits Two Europeans Charged With Smuggling Weapons to Middle East With AM-Gulf Rdp, Bjt

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) _ A federal judge on Friday acquitted two Europeans charged with trying to smuggle thousands of anti-tank missiles and other weapons to Iraq, Iran and Libya.

When the men were arrested in mid-August, federal officials had charged the case was linked to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait on Aug. 2.

But U.S. District Judge Patricia Fawsett on Friday agreed with defense attorneys that there was insufficient evidence to prove the men had tried or had conspired to smuggle the weapons.

Claus Fuhler, 33, a German-born ophthalmologist living in Barcelona, Spain, and Juan Martin Peche-Koesters, 36, a Madrid businessman, were charged Aug. 15 with trying to buy items including 10,000 TOW missiles, 20,000 artillery shells, artillery-equipped jeeps, rifles, grenades and mortars, as well as nuclear waste and chemical garbage.

They were charged with violating the Arms Export Control Act, which bans arms sales to the three Middle Eastern countries. If convicted, they could have received more than 10 years in prison and fines of up to $500,000.

''These men never sold any weapons in their lives,'' said defense attorney Don Lykkebak. ''They wouldn't know an anti-tank missile from an M-16.''

''I never came here to purchase weapons,'' Fuhler said after his acquittal. ''I was so surprised when I was arrested. I was led to believe I was doing legitimate business with a legitimate firm.''

The acquittal will not deter future attempts to prosecute suspected arms smugglers, U.S. Attorney Robert Genzman said in a statement.

''We accept the court's decision but we also want to stress the importance of pursuing arms traffickers who jeopardize our national security interests,'' Genzman said.

Customs agents earlier said the arrests culminated a yearlong investigation code-named ''Operation Dragon.'' The investigation began when a U.S. missiles manufacturer told authorities Fuhler and Peche-Koesters allegedly were seeking 10,000 TOW missiles for $160 million.

At the time of the arrests, an undercover agent posing as an arms dealer said the men had tried to pay for and obtain 200 TOW missiles for shipment through Spain to Libya.

At a news conference announcing the arrests less that two weeks after the Augyst invasion, U.S. Customs Service Commissioner Carol Hallett had said the case was ''clearly'' linked to Iraq's action in Kuwait.

''Prosecutors connected with the case were involved in grandstanding from the very beginning,'' Lykkebak charged. ''The problem was there was never any case. The government imagined the whole thing.''