Sunday, January 16, 2005

Reader Mail

A reader writes asking about Afghanistan's KAM-Air. Well.... Afghanistan was a considerable market for Viktor B during the 1990s, and is now perhaps the most famous thanks to the stories about involvement with the Taliban. In fact, they'd been supplying the Northern Alliance for years, perhaps on behalf of Russia, but they certainly did supply the Taliban with at least one load. This came up when, in 1996, the Taliban forced an Il76 to land with its load of military stores for the North. They kept the plane and the crew, and no doubt found a use for the cargo. According to the Washington Post interview with him, Viktor claims that the crew escaped from prison after some months and flew off into the wild blue etc etc. This sounds more like Biggles than reality, and the truth is probably that they (and the aircraft) were released in exchange for a share of the supplies. In 2002, Der Spiegel alleged that quantities of Ukrainian armaments were being shipped to the Taliban in a deal between President Kuchma, Bout, and gangster Vadim Rabinovich. However, Johan Perelman, probably the best authority on Bout, has since said he doesn't believe the story.

Certainly, though, the Bout system was involved in supporting the Northerners, and therefore it's interesting to see that some of the same aircraft are in use. KAM Air was apparently created in Afghanistan in 2003, and it operates a small mixed fleet. Several planes are on lease from Phoenix Aviation, a Sharjah-based but Kyrgyz-registered operation associated with Santa Cruz Imperial and GST Aero whose name was previously used in the early 90s for other bits of the empire. Others are from Teebah Airlines, an officially Jordanian firm established by Iraqi interests last year whose fleet of Boeings are all registered in Sierra Leone. Funny that, especially as they also supply the new Iraqi Airways' fleet. Especially interesting is the background of Boeing 727 YA-GAA, a veteran of Christopher Barrett-Jolly's Balkh Air. Balkh was established by CBJ and Afghan warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum in 1996 before being run out of Afghanistan. Barrett-Jolly was involved as a B707 pilot with various early Bout operations including deliveries to Yemeni rebels in Riyan Mukalla in 1994, allegedly with Saudi involvement. Later he went (fairly) straight, beginning an operation to import veal calves to the UK by air.

Typically, the calves offended the Great British Public more than anything else.

Ugly confrontations with animal-rights protestors broke out. They began to picket his house, and he let off a gun. They blockaded Coventry Airport, and one of his lorries ran over an old lady. Then one of the aircraft crashed, and the firm went bust. He then got jailed for insurance fraud. When he got out he went back to gun-running - perhaps understandably given the reaction to his efforts at respectability. He took himself to Afghanistan with YA-GAA, but then was thrown out of Afghanistan when Mazar i-Sharif fell. His curious career has since been ended for the time being, after his part in a scheme to import cocaine to the UK was detected and he ended up in jail. But the material keeps going, and YA-GAA is now back on its old beat in Afghanistan, next to Kyrgyz-registry Phoenix veterans and an aircraft belonging to something called "Financial Advisory Group" - formerly of Miami, now of Sharjah. What a small world it is.

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