Saturday, May 07, 2005

What Is, In Fact, Going On in the Yemen

Back in January, I asked What's Up in the Yemen? after noticing regular flights by Irbis Air Co., a Kazakh-registered airline owned by Viktor Bout and now placed on the US Treasury seizure list, from Sharjah to Riyan-Mukalla airport in the eastern Yemen. Since then, we've seen confirmation of this with the crash there of Air Bas/Irbis's Antonov 12 UN-11007, which failed to take-off from Riyan and ran off the runway despite having 9,000 feet of concrete to stop on, suggesting overloading. Mysteriously, the firemen who responded to the crash would only speak to the Arab News on condition of anonymity.

This is a UN Expert Panel report on violations of the arms embargo on Somalia. Note Paragraph 90, which lists a number of sailing ships - sailing ships! - implicated in smuggling weapons into Somalia, and records their home ports. In all cases it is nowhere else than Mukalla. Not that smuggling is anything new around there, of course, a corner of the world where dhows (dhows!) have smuggled pretty much anything up to and including slaves since before Saint Paul took that route, supposedly, to India. Killer quote:
"Even though the security of the Yemeni ports — and in particular the Aden
Container Terminal — has markedly improved, the long Yemeni coastline remains
virtually unpoliced and continues to serve as a trans-shipment point for arms to
Somalia. Vessels, especially traditional dhows, can land and depart from the coast
unregistered and undetected. Weapons, machine spare parts, alcohol and fuel are
among the goods frequently smuggled out of Yemen. The fact that an estimated
1,000 refugees from Somalia arrive in Yemen each month proves how easy it is for
ships to land undetected."
Indeed. In 1916, some survivors of the sinking of a German raider at the Cocos Islands, where she was trying to cut the transoceanic telegraph cable to Australia, sailed out in a lifeboat and hijackeda fishing boat, which they later replaced with a more seaworthy schooner. They sailed right across the Indian Ocean and landed on the Yemeni coast, in fact only a few miles from the British colony of Aden; but nobody spotted them, and they succeeded in trekking across the desert as far as the railhead in Medina, from where it took them but days to reach Berlin and a heroes' welcome by Orient Express. Their main problem on landing wasn't avoiding detection by the British, but avoiding being murdered or betrayed by the locals, who were unimpressed by their argument that the distant Turkish overlord was Germany's ally.

Now, you may accuse me of taking the opportunity to tell a good story, and you'd be right. But, returning to seriousness, what about this?
"Upon departure from Boosaaso for the return flight to Sharjah (via Riyan airport in Yemen) this same aircraft changed its registration from Russian to Ukrainian."
Funny things, it seems, happen at Riyan, probably because of this:
"Riyan airport in Yemen does not provide any inspection for air cargo in transit. Most Somalia-bound operators justify their visits to Riyan as technical stops for refuelling, but it is unclear why they should choose to do so, given that there is no appreciable difference in the price of aviation fuel between Yemen and the United Arab Emirates."
How odd, eh. UN-11007, for example, officially carried out a "refuelling stop" on its fateful visit to Riyan although an An-12 should be able to do the trip from northern Somalia to the UAE direct. The only other reason to do so would be tankering - that is, the practice of taking on as much fuel as possible where it is cheap, in order not to buy where it is expensive. But if the fuel in Riyan is no cheaper, this would be pointless. It's at least plausible that the reason 007 didn't get off again is because it picked up more cargo there.

Why should we care? According to the report, the two SA-7B missiles used by al-Qa'ida in an attempt to shoot down an Israeli Boeing 757 in Mombasa on the 28th November 2002 originated in Bulgaria in 1993. This would be in-pattern with the source of much of the armaments distributed by Viktor Bout. It appears to be unclear whether the weapons reached Somalia, where they were bought by the terrorist cell, as part of assistance by the Eritrean government to one of the Somali warlords in 1998 (presumably to secure their flank during the war with Ethiopia) or whether they were obtained commercially. However, the missiles made it from Bulgaria to the Horn of Africa as part of a shipment to the Yemen in 1994. At this time, a civil war was raging there between the government of reunited Yemen and a Saudi-backed countergovernment based in - guess where? - Riyan. And none other than Viktor Bout's Phoenix Aviation was delivering supplies there, using a Boeing 707 piloted by British cocaine smuggler and fraudster Chris Barrett-Jolly. It is not stated whether the weapons in question were delivered to the government or the rebels, but perhaps, all things considered, it doesn't matter.

Now consider this. The oil tanker route from the Gulf to Europe and North America passes close by these shores, as does the shipping route through the Suez Canal. Al-Qa'ida destroyed a US destroyer in Aden harbour in 1998, and blew up a French oil tanker off - guess where? - Mukalla in 2002. Can you guess why the US Marines paid the good people of the Puntland shore a visit last week?

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