There's a new UN Security Council report out on West Africa! An event of sheer joy for fans of mystery gun-runners, diamonds and such. (You can get the document here (pdf).) As well as much interesting information on a wide range of subjects, the report includes a detailed description of one particular flight, which might stand for a characterisation of the business. The aircraft was a Boeing 707 of Johnsons Air (a company registered in Accra, Ghana and based inevitably in Sharjah, previously much in evidence at Ostend Airport in the mid-90s). The contract originated with something called Rus Aviation of Moscow (probably Russ Air Transport), who received US$95,000 cash from a man known only as "Ali". They subcontracted to something called "Gatewick Aviation Services" of Dubai (previously unknown to me) who chartered 9G-LAD from Johnsons.
But when the aircraft left on its way, it used the callsign "ACP". This apparently referred to a firm called Astral Aviation, who according to Gatewick "lent" them the call sign in payment for a debt. Astral denies this, claiming they had settled the debt in cash and that Gatewick used the call sign fraudulently. Astral claims to be suing Gatewick and another firm in Kazakhstan over this matter. After all, it meant that the landing charges, ATC charges etc were billed to Astral, so considerable sums were at stake. A fax sent in connection to the flight had Astral's letterhead with the wrong phone number on it. The plane left Sharjah bound for Monrovia, but went first to Tehran - which is in the opposite direction - where according to the crew (but not the captain) arms were loaded by members of the Iranian army. The description of the loading bears a close similarity to accounts of similar flights from Slovakia and Bulgaria to Africa in the 90s (involvement of local army's vehicles and personnel, loading in darkness in remote corners of the airfield, evident effort at secrecy). Two different cargo manifests were prepared - one showing a load of "general cargo" from Sharjah to "Gana (sic), Ivory Coast", and one showing the truth. Or rather, part of the truth - it gave the real destination but of course made no mention of the arms. It also gave a different shipper and airline - in fact, all three copies of the air waybill have different firms on them.
On arrival in Monrovia, everything proceeded to go wrong. The weather that day was terrible, and the landing was so atrocious that two of the 707's engines scraped the runway, presumably as the crates of high explosive strained at their tiedowns. It must have been a flight to remember, but worse was to come. Whilst unloading proceeded, the crew began (it gets worse) prying bits off an abandoned 707 to repair the damage. Then, The Authorities in the shape of UN peacekeepers arrived on the scene. The repairs and unloading were abandoned and the aircraft was manoeuvred for an attempted take-off, but the UN troops now opened fire on it, to the terror of airport workers left behind by the attempted flit. After three hours' parley, the aircraft was permitted to go as far as Lagos for repairs - but (not surprisingly) once there they didn't stop and returned to the welcoming sands of the UAE as quickly as possible.
Well, that was fun, wasn't it? I liked the bit about the engine cowls scraping along the runway as the mortar bombs stirred in the hold.
Despite their protestation, there are only limited grounds to believe that Astral were in blissful ignorance of the cargo, mere dupes of Gatewick/Aviastar/Saha or whoever the hell it was. Astral Aviation Ltd. is a Kenyan firm supposedly based in Jomo Kenyatta Airport, Nairobi. But their aircraft only ever seem to appear in - guess where - Sharjah. 3 out of 4 aircraft on its roster seem to have either been leased from Viktor Bout-linked companies or to be leased to them. The only exception has no known serial number and no known history since it had a CCCP- registration. One Il-76 ended up with GST Aero. Another, an An-12BK was leased from our old friends Phoenix, and another from Asterias Commercial - the new name for Aerocom. The UNSC panel seems to have been unaware of the Il-76 or two of the An12s, until the Czechs provided them with details. According to the Czech authorities, invoices relating to these aircraft were settled by "Aerospace Consortium FZC" of Fujairah, UAE. Astral's representatives claim that this exonerates them. Possibly, of course, Aerospace is just yet another frontco and they are lying.
The money man for the deal described above seems to have been a chap called Ali Kleilat, who also owned a (unairworthy) 727 that took Charles Taylor into exile. Interestingly, that particular aircraft now works for the Vice President of the DRC. That sounds to me like Jean-Pierre Bemba, leader of the RCD, Vice President of the DRC and Sanjivan Ruprah's father-in-law. Attentive readers will recall that he had a secret meeting last year with people thought to be Gadafi's emissaries aboard BAC111 3C-QRF, owned by Jetline International and operated by them on behalf of Richard Chichakli's San Air General Trading. Apparently he needs more space in his jet now.
Other suspicious air activities were carried out by a Ugandan-registry 707 5X-AMU of something called "Air Memphis Uganda" and, interestingly, an Iranian-reg Ilyushin 76 EP-TJI of a firm called Qeshm Air. Qeshm's aircraft have been photographed in Kabul both before and since the intervention.