By Jonathan Allen
NEW YORK (Reuters) - One of seven men arrested in a sting operation for allegedly selling drugs to people they believed were Taliban militants pleaded guilty on Thursday to conspiring to smuggle cocaine into the United States.
Francis Sourou Ahissou, a 48-year-old citizen of Togo in West Africa, entered a guilty plea in Manhattan federal court as part of a plea deal with the government.
He admitted he agreed to sell cocaine to people he thought were Taliban militants that could then be resold for a profit, and that some of the cocaine would be smuggled into the United States, during meetings in Benin and Ghana in 2010 with undercover informants working with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Two U.S. citizens arrested in the sting were found guilty following a trial last month for conspiring to aid the Taliban and conspiring to acquire anti-aircraft missiles, while two Benin nationals pleaded guilty last year to charges of conspiring to smuggle heroin into the United States.
The status of the sixth individual arrested was not immediately known.
The Taliban ruled Afghanistan until the U.S. invasion of 2001 and is deemed a terrorist organization by the United States.
Ahissou and four other men arrested in the sting had been charged with one count of conspiracy to engage in narco-terrorism and one count of conspiracy to distribute more than 5 kg (11 lb) of cocaine knowing it would be imported into the United States.
Under the deal with prosecutors, Ahissou agreed to plead guilty to only the second charge in exchange for a recommendation from the government that he be sentenced to 14 to 17 and a half years in prison.
The maximum penalty is life in prison and a fine of $10 million.
Speaking in French through an interpreter, Ahissou told the court he had a degree in accounting and confirmed he understood his rights and the charges against him.
Before being led away in handcuffs, Ahissou nodded at the judge and the prosecutor, thanking each in turn.
He is due to be sentenced on August 7.
Ahissou and four other men charged in the sting were arrested in Monrovia, Liberia, with the help of Liberian authorities in February 2011. He has been in custody since then.
Other men arrested in the sting were also charged with agreeing to sell surface-to-air missiles to people they thought were Taliban militants for use in Afghanistan.
(Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst, Andre Grenon, Edith Honan and Lisa Shumaker)