Thursday, January 20, 2005

Viktor Bout: What's Up in the Yemen?

If you check the Sharjah Airport arrival and departure lists, here, you'll see a variety of interesting things. For a start, there's the regular BGIA service to Baghdad as previously blogged. There are other dubious names like Airline Transport, Air West and TransAvia Export. But what is the explanation of the 3 or sometimes 4 flights listed as leaving for Riyan Mukalla, Yemen, every night at 0001 and 0010 hours? They are listed as operated by Irbis, a well-known Bout operation registered in Kazakhstan that has sometimes been described as a charter broker marketing the rest of the system's services.

Riyan lies on the coast of Yemen, in the Hadrahmaut region at Lat.14° 39' 45.50" N, Long.49° 22' 30.10" E. The nearest town (about six miles away) is Al-Mukalla. The ICAO code is OYRN. Satellite mapping shows a major airfield with a single 10,000ft plus runway (that's nearly as long as London Heathrow, for comparison). More details are available here. All that concrete would appear to be a legacy of the British empire - Riyan was one of the numerous post-war RAF stations in the Arabian peninsula, both as a base for the various small wars and as a staging post on the route to the Far East. Much later, during the early 1990s, the airport was a source of supply for the Democratic Republic of Yemen side. Interestingly enough, Chris Barrett-Jolley's Phoenix Aviation was involved in these arms deliveries. An ITV documentary team who interviewed participants including CBJ was told that they saw USAF AWACS aircraft operating over the Red Sea enroute there on at least two occasions and that Saudi agents were in evidence at Riyan. References in the text of that report show that these claims were made by CBJ personally.

This particular job shows every sign of being a VB operation. The armaments were acquired in Bulgaria, probably from the KINTEX state arsenal, and shipped by Peak Aviation on charter from Phoenix (Bulgaria), but later by Phoenix (UK). The flight plan filed in Plovdiv was for N'Djamena (presumably in accordance with the end user certificates), but was changed enroute to Muscat. Even this was false, and the aircraft then diverted to Riyan.

Well, that war is over. It may be of interest that the French supertanker Limburg was attacked by al-Qa'ida very close to Mukalla in 2002, or it may not. But it is certainly interesting that three Irbis flights a night go there, especially as two of them are always scheduled to leave at exactly the same time.

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