Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Bout: The Story Blows Wide Open

Newsweek has blasted the Viktor Bout scandal wide open, at long last. Key message:
"In an effort to crack down on one of the world's most notorious international criminals, President George W. Bush last summer signed an order barring U.S. citizens from doing business with Russian arms trafficker Victor Bout. But not long afterward, U.S. officials discovered Bout's tentacles were wider than anticipated: for much of this year, NEWSWEEK has learned, a Texas charter firm allegedly controlled by Bout was making repeated flights to Iraq—courtesy of a Pentagon contract allowing it to refuel at U.S. military bases. One reason for the flights, sources say, was that the firm was flying on behalf of Kellogg Brown & Root, the division of Halliburton hired to rebuild Iraq's oilfields."
Halliburton and Bout both, eh? That's something like a Bush administration perfect storm. I certainly didn't think it would be anything that obvious when I published details of the fuel purchase agreement that the Newsweek article is built on, back in May. (If you want a quick rundown, this post contains a summary and links to all the Bout content pre-28th September. Since then, we've also published picture of one of his planes in Baghdad,this report on suspicious aircraft, and this slab of speculation on his activities in Rwanda.) Apparently Air Bas have been landing some five times a week at various points in Iraq, running ammunition. It's just what we've been saying all along. The Newsweek guy seems to have looked up Richard Chichakli, Viktor's accountant and financial manager, who is known to read this weblog occasionally (Hi!), who confirms a past story that the UAE-based company Falcon Express had passed a contract on to Bas.

Falcon Express, a small operation with four Beech 1900s based in Dubai, has been said for some time to be operating an Antonov 12 and an Ilyushin 76 for bigger loads. TO clarify a little, we will have to go through the names. Here goes. During the summer, a new set of names in the scandal appeared. As well as British Gulf International and Air Bas, we now began to hear of "Jetline" and "Skylink". I initially thought that the Jetline was Jetline International, a former charter broking company now supposedly operating VIP flights for Sin-Sad community governments. Several of the aircraft on its books have a history with Bout, especially the Il-62 5A-DKT which has been reported under the registration 3C-QQR with Jetline, two other regs with Air Bas and now its current registration back at Jetline. Further, a BAC111 registered 3C-QRF is said to be operated for none other than Chichakli's San Air General Trading.

Other investigators, especially the excellent Douglas Farah, concentrated on SkyLink Air & Logistics, a large Canadian firm that operates airports in war-zone reconstruction. It has a subsidiary called Jet Line, that operates Ilyushin 76 aircraft out of Moldova (a previous Bout base). SkyLink operate Baghdad Airport. Surely these were they? But there is also another Skylink, Skylink Express, based in Russia. One of its aircraft, An-12BP serial number 1347909, is currently operating for GST Aero, a dubious Kazakh-registry outfit based (where else?) in Sharjah. It previously worked for a string of more or less dodgy companies in Angola and the DRC. (Oh, and the UN, who seem to hire aircraft from the Bout empire more often than suggests due care and attention.) Throughout its wanderings, though, two things have been constant - a lack of identifying titles, and an Aeroflot callsign, although it hasn't been part of the Russian flag carrier for years. One Il-76 photographed in Baghdad and Mosul is registered to a "private operator" in Sao Tome and Principe but based in Sharjah - where, on the 17th of February, 2004, shortly after being seen in Mosul in December 2003 and Baghdad on the 24th of January, 2004, all traces of "Skylink" were removed. 9L-LEC was in town on the same day, as was UN-11007, a veteran of Boutcos Irbis Air and - Air Bas!

You could rapidly lose track of these things. Of course, that's exactly the reason for this intrigue and complexity. None of the aircraft above appear directly on Air Bas's official roster, but we know from the fuel records that it's them. Perhaps the fact that Bas has a US corporate registration in Texas made it a favourable figurehead for operations in Iraq - it's more reassuring than - say - Kyrgyzstan or Sao Tome and Principe, even if the planes are registered in either Equatorial Guinea or Kazakhstan and based in the UAE. It's going to be very interesting to see what gets shaken out of the story now Big Media are on the case. Still, they had their chance back in May. Both the Financial Times and Le Monde had at least bits of the story - the French were even the first to put a name to the suspects - but it seems that neither of them Googled "British Gulf International Airlines" when Le Monde printed it, which would have given them the fuel contracts and a king-hell scoop.

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