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In a secret transaction involving four countries, several companies and altered documents, two oil rigs have been shipped from Iran en route to Serbia in violation of the United Nations sanctions against Belgrade, Western officials say.

The shipment was discovered by the CIA after it left Iran, officials said, and now the United States is trying to prevent the contraband from reaching its destination.Apparently in an attempt to disguise the identity of the intended recipient in Serbia, which would use the equipment for its war machine, the original documents for the transaction described the contents in the ship's hold as oil-drilling equipment destined for Bulgaria, then Russia. The oil rigs had belonged to a Canadian company owned by a Serbian immigrant.

The documents were later altered to say the rigs were hydrological research equipment, destined for Macedonia, according to officials from several countries, who have seen the documents and are tracking the equipment. Western officials said similar shipments were planned if this one was successful.

"It is a particularly egregious example of a broader problem," said a Western diplomat who follows sanctions closely.

The broader problem, officials said, is that the sanctions have developed a huge leak in the southern Balkans, and traders and the Serbs are using so many false fronts that governments are finding it hard to stem the flow.

Not since engines for fighter planes were smuggled into Serbia a few years ago has a single shipment in violation of the U.N. embargo so alarmed Washington, officials say. And now the high-stakes espionage drama continues.

Investigators are trying to keep track of the equipment, which is more than 100 trucks' worth and already in at least three countries - and block it from reaching the Serbs, who have oilfields in the north and in a Serbian-controlled area of eastern Croatia.

"This is big stuff," a Western diplomat said. "The most important thing you can deny to Yugoslavia is oil."

With the United States having declined to send troops into the war zones of Bosnia and Croatia, sanctions against Yugoslavia are the centerpiece of Washington's Balkan policy.

They are the means by which the United States hopes to persuade President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, the most powerful politician in Yugoslavia, to negotiate, end his support for the Bosnian Serbs and recognize the independence and boundaries of Croatia, Bosnia and Macedonia.

The case of the oil-drilling equipment is highly delicate, and officials who answered questions did so only on the condition that they, and in some cases even their countries, not be identified.

The issue is delicate in part because about 700 tons of the equipment has already slipped through Greece and Bulgaria, and neither U.S. nor European diplomats want to embarrass those countries' governments.