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May 14, 2005

Operation Mirrorball

For Alex.

Headline: HOW CAN BRITAIN STILL USE THE MERCHANT OF DEATH? Strapline: Today the UK will promise to curb arms traffickers. But the MoD is hiring planes from a dealer linked to Bin Laden.

By Andrew Gilligan. Evening Standard, Monday, 9th May 2005.

Victor Bout [sic] is the most notorious arms trafficker in the world. Linked to Osama bin Laden by the British government, linked to the Taliban by the US government, he was described by a New Labour minister as a "merchant of death" who must be shut down.

Yet an Evening Standard investigation has found that, just two months ago, a Victor Bout company was hired by that very same British government to operate military flights from a key RAF base.

Bout, a 38-year old Russian, owns or controls a constellation of airlines that have smuggled illegal weapons to conflict zones for the past 15 years. He has been named in countless official investigations and reports - the most recent only last month. The authorities in Belgium, where he used to work, have issued a warrant for his arrest. In 2004, the US froze his assets and put him on a terrorist watch list [not that they stopped him flying to and from Baghdad, TYR].

But between 6 and 9 March this year, according to official Civil Aviation Authority records, two Victor Bout charter flights took off from RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire. The cargo was armoured vehicles and a few British troops. The client was the Ministry of Defence.

The charters were operated by an airline called Trans Avia. It was named as one of Mr. Bout's front companies by the Government itself - in a Commons written answer on 2 May 2002. The Government cannot claim ignorance of Bout's dubious links. The Foreign Office minister Denis MacShane reassured MPs: "The UK has played a leading role in drawing international attention to Bout's activities, initially in Angola and Liberia and more recently relating to Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda".

A specialist aviation journal reported that the "al Qaeda link" was Bout's role in supplying bin Laden with a personal aeroplane - in the days before September 11, when he had a little more freedom of movement. Could Trans Avia have gone legit since then? Not according to the United States Treasury Department. Only two weeks ago, on 26 April, the Treasury "designated" Trans Avia as one of 30 companies linked to Bout, "an international arms dealer and war profiteer". Bout "controls what is reputed to be the largest private fleet of Soviet-era cargo aircraft in the world", says the Treasury press release. "The arms he has sold or brokered have helped fuel conflicts and support UN-sanctioned regimes in Afghanistan, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Sudan. Notably, information available to the US government shows that Bout profited by $50 million by supplying the Taliban with military equipment when they ruled Afghanistan."

The story doesn't end there. Another two flights were made in the same three days of March by an airline called Jet Line International, also from RAF Brize Norton. A further three flights were made at the same time from another base, RAF Lyneham. The destination was Kosovo. The client, once again, was the Ministry of Defence.

Yet Jet Line, too, is a company that has been accused of close connections to Bout. According to the authoritative US newspaper, the Los Angeles Times, it appeared on a list of Bout companies circulated by the State Department to US diplomatic posts around the world.

"There is no doubt at all about the links between Jet Line and Bout," says Johan Peleman, the researcher who wrote the UN report. "It's one of his most important assets." Intelligence agencies say the same thing. Jet Line's office address in its base at Chisinau, Moldova, is the same as that of Aerocom, a company exposed by the United Nations as involved in sanctions-busting and arms-smuggling to the brutal rebels of Liberia. According to the UN, Aerocom was involved in the illegal smuggling or attempted smuggling of more than 6,000 automatic rifles and machine guns, 4,500 grenades, 350 missile launchers, 7,500 landmines, and millions of rounds of ammunition in breach of a UN arms embargo.

Tracking down the registration numbers of the sanctions-busting aircraft, it turns out that the Jet Line aircraft that flew the MoD flights in March were previously registered to Aerocom. They are in fact the same planes.

Bout's activities have helped cause quite literally thousands of deaths in many of the worst places in the world. Born in 1967, he served in the Soviet air force and then military intelligence, where he developed a gift for languages. When the USSR broke up, he "acquired" a large fleet of surplus or obsolete aircraft, which he used to deliver arms and ammunition also "acquired" from old Soviet stockpiles. That weaponry fuelled some of the most savage wars in Africa. Charles Taylor's insurgent guerrillas used Bout weapons to destroy Liberia. In Sierra Leone, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) used Bout weapons to terrorise the country, seize the diamond mines, and chop off their opponents' hands.

None of our business? Well, the RUF's Bout-supplied weapons were almost certainly used to attack British troops engaged on the Sierra Leone peacekeeping mission in 2000.

Bout's planes would arrive at obscure African airstrips, loaded with weapons, then leave heaped with diamonds, coltan - vital for making mobile phones - and other precious minerals in return. "He was apolitical," said one UN official. "He would fly for anyone that paid." Bout's willingness to go places that no-one else would go made him the market leader in the arms-trafficking business. Little wonder, therefore, that the then Foreign Office minister Peter Hain said "The murder and mayhem of Unita in Angola, the RUF in Sierra Leone, and groups in Congo would not have been as terrible without Bout's operations." He was truly "a merchant of death", Hain said [and for a long time I respected Hain for it, too - TYR].

Bout used to operate from Ostend, in Belgium, where a shabby hotel in the city centre acted as his informal marketplace. There was a flight departures screen in the hotel bar, so he could keep track of his planes' movements. Then he was forced to retreat to Sharjah, in the United Arab Emirates - and after September 11, to Moscow, where he controls his empire through front companies such as Trans Avia. "You are not putting facts. You are putting allegations," he tells journalists on the rare occasions they manage to get through on his Russian phone number. [Actually, the quote comes from his surprise appearance on Ekho Moskhy radio in 2002 - TYR]

Britain has been embarrassed by dodgy airlines before. Last year, the Department for International Development promised a full investigation after the Standard exposed its use of Aerocom on an aid flight to Africa. The problem is that few reputable carriers want to fly to Kosovo, Iraq, Darfur or some of the places where the government needs transport. And the airline brokers used by Whitehall seem to have learned surprisingly few lessons from past embarrassments.

In a statement, the Ministry of Defence said the fact that its broker "seems to have used an aircraft in Jet Line International livery" was not the same as saying that the MoD itself had contracted Jet Line. But, whatever hairs the MoD may choose to split, the payout - for Mr. Bout - is the same.

Today and tomorrow, at the MoD's vast procurement headquarters in Bristol, defence officials are holding a special conference with human rights groups and arms trade campaigners. The purpose is to persuade them that the government is serious about cracking down on the scourge of arms trafficking.

One good way to start might, perhaps, be to stop putting British taxpayers' money into the pockets of the worst arms trafficker in the world."

May 14, 2005 | Permalink

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Comments

Am I the only person who can't see what all the fuss is about here? It's best to exercise a degree of caution when reading an Andrew Gilligan article - he's been known to get things wrong before. Yes, I'm sure that Victor Bout is a nasty character and that the government should try not to have any dealings with him but such is the murky world of arms trafficking - especially in Africa. His much trumpeted link to Bin Laden occurs before 9-11 and consists of supplying him with an aircraft. The whole thing sounds worthy of a ten minute report on Newsnight just before Paxo reads out the next day's front pages.

Posted by: David H | May 14, 2005 2:25:32 PM

Bout, a 38-year old Russian...

Bout? A Russian? I'd be curious to see how his name is spelled in Cyrillic.

Posted by: Tim Newman | May 14, 2005 4:02:49 PM

In Cyrillic? Dunno, but he uses a variety of slightly different spellings in Latin script.

Whether he is Russian in the strict sense or not is a matter of debate. Two versions of his personal history exist, one that he is from Minsk, one that he is a Tajik, but all agree he now normally uses a Russian passport, well, Russian passports.

David H - his much trumpeted link with OBL also includes shipments of arms to the Taliban, after Bin Laden moved there and took charge in 1999-ish. Much more importantly, his diamond exporting operations from Liberia at the same time coincided with the presence of al-Qaida financial people at Charles Taylor's court in Monrovia, who bought diamonds.

Posted by: Alex | May 14, 2005 10:27:54 PM