Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Viktor Bout: some recent developments

I think it's time for an update on the Bout story. Information received suggests that British Gulf International Airlines (one of the Boutcos listed in the US Defence Department fuel contract) may have a structure and history radically different to what we thought. Now, BGIA officially began in Sao Tome and Principe in 2000, before spawning a subsidiary of the same name in Kyrgyzstan in 2003. The aircraft, it goes without saying, remained in the same place, based in Sharjah throughout. So did the staff, who continued to work out of the same offices in the Sharjah International Airport Free Zone (SAIF). All that changed outwardly were the registrations of the planes. Well, some of them, as only part of the fleet was actually reregistered.

I have been informed that, in fact, no company called BGIA was ever incorporated in Sao Tome. Instead, a number of low-profile airlines exist that were registered by Russians, apparently always going under false names. One of these, Atlantic Airfreight Aviation, later moved to (you guessed it) the UAE. The only Airfreight Avn. aircraft I'm aware of was photographed in Mauritius, wearing the titles of something called "Dvin Air". Its Armenian registration, EK-76445, places it with a firm of that name in Yerevan, most of whose assets seem to have ended up with dubious operators in Africa. (For example, PNAC Cargo of Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, formed only months ago..). Atlantic was ostensibly the work of champion amateur boxer Sergei Kazakov. Similarly, Goliaf Air, official owners of the Ilyushin 76 S9-DAE that turned up in Iraq, are meant to have a National Hockey League star, a chess grandmaster and a world authority on Cossack history on their board - and nobody else! This pattern, of course, we've seen before. One of the three suspect firms on the fuel contracts was a charter broker ("Sky Traffic Facilitators") in the SAIF - and their contact name was one Kirill Pilgorov. Who happens to be a Russian film star.

Goliaf are interesting because S9-DAE was (as previously mentioned) on charter to BGIA when it appeared in Iraq (although it wore "Skylink" titles, later removed). Another interesting feature of all this is that more and more very small companies (just a couple of aircraft) keep appearing. This may have something to do with the fact that one of the bigger entities in the empire, Aerocom, recently got its Air Operators' Certificate pulled by the Moldovan government after its gun-running was exposed. The ensuing flap resulted in the activation of Asterias Commercial, a firm in Greece created in 1996 but apparently left as a dormant shell company until now. I strongly suspect that this practice explains most of the company names - where they can get away with it, they likely operate a company farm and churn out all the shell companies they need. The actual base, as is traditional, is elsewhere, at Ivanovo in the Ukraine. Moldovan displeasure may not have been the only reason for Aerocom's termination - after all, one of their Antonov 26s (ER-AFH) was impounded in Belize for smuggling cocaine. Others have moved on to Airline Transport, a not undodgy operation with connections to one of the original Ostend firms, ACS, and whose aircraft also keep turning up in Iraq. Both Jet Line International and Jetline International (if indeed they are distinct) have also taken on some Aerocom tin.

Another Aerocom machine, Tu-154 ER-TAI serial no. 546, may explain the Sao Tome firm "Air Service Company". It appeared in Somalia operating for "Air Service International". Might these be one and the same?

In other relateds, it's come to my attention that the Times ran a fairly thin story about the LA Times disclosure that some Jetline/Jet Line flights to Iraq were chartered by the British Government - they ran it all right, on Boxing Day! Maximum impact, eh.

And, further afield, it is reported that mysterious Antonov-12s are visiting Old Entebbe airfield in Uganda enroute from the eastern Congo to Dubai. This airfield is currently used by the Ugandan armed forces and the UN. Apparently, the flights were not authorised, but the army liaison officer (Captain Kazungu) at the airport got $300 for each movement not reported to the Ugandan CAA. The Ugandan military denies everything. The goings-on came to light after an An12 crashed, killing six Russian flyers. The list of names makes interesting reading - Air Service and Service Air are there, as are Volga-Atlantic and Showa. In the past, such flights to or from the Ugandan army in the Congo were routed via Kigali to provide plausible deniability.

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