The Merchant of Death
from the 11-part series
Making a Killing
The Business of War
The Center for Public Integrity
From the outside, the $3 million property
in the plush, residential Sandhurst area of Johannesburg could
easily have been mistaken for a detention facility. The property
was surrounded by 5-meter high walls topped by electrified fences.
Armed guards with machine guns and dogs patrolled the grounds,
and the daily security expenses ran higher than what most South
Africans made in a year. But the compound was no prison. Within
the walls were all the amenities of the leisure class: two swimming
pools, a luxurious guesthouse, cascading ponds and a corolla of
tropical plants surrounding the main house.
On a warm afternoon in March 1998, an
elderly Russian woman was cutting up fruit in the kitchen, while
her daughter and son-in-law played tennis across the street. Suddenly,
the idyll was destroyed by the sound of grenades blasting open
the door, as armed intruders stormed in. The Russian woman grabbed
a large watermelon and smashed it on the head of one of the gunmen
before she was knocked unconscious by a rifle butt. Hustling across
the street, her son-in-law arrived in time to confront the armed
thugs, who roughed him up. The masked men fled with $6 million
dollars in cash, but left paintings and expensive artifacts untouched.
A message had been sent to Victor Bout.
A short while later, a motorcycle gunman
opened fire on a car carrying Bout and two associates, and another
of his employees was beaten up and robbed on a Johannesburg street.
Whatever the circumstances, for Bout the intent was now unmistakable.
"The message was you're vulnerable so get out," said
Richard Chichakli, one of his business associates. A few months
later, Bout put his home up for sale.
Bout, a short, stocky 35-year-old native
of Tajikistan, graduated from Moscow's Military Institute of Foreign
Languages and reportedly is fluent in six. He started out in business
in Afghanistan when his air force regiment was disbanded during
the breakup of the former Soviet Union.
According to intelligence documents, the
polyglot with personal skills was able to establish working relationships
with various African heads of state and rebel leaders the
late Angolan rebel leader Jonas Savimbi, Liberian President Charles
Taylor, former Zairean President Mobutu Sese Seko, Libyan President
Moammar Gadhafi, Jean-Pierre Bemba, the leader of the Congo Liberation
Front, and the former leaders of Congo-Brazzaville, among others.
Bout had access to what they wanted. The
end of the Cold War resulted in a massive amount of surplus weapons
and spare parts being dumped at often very low prices onto the
private market. Bout had the capacity to deliver not only small
arms, but also major weapons systems, and deliver them almost
anywhere in the world. And his associates
ranging from former U.S. military personnel and Russian
officials to African heads of state and organized crime figures
gave him a lengthy list of buyers and sellers with whom
to do business.
He ran a maze of individuals and companies,
which employed some 300 people and owned and operated 40 to 60
aircraft, including the largest private fleet of Antonov cargo
planes in the world, according to an investigation by the Center
for Public Integrity's International Consortium of Investigative
Journalists. Through his web of companies, Bout made it almost
impossible to trace his activities. He leased aircraft to other
individuals and companies so that he was not directly tied to
illegal activities. Indeed, Bout adamantly denies that he was
involved in weapons trafficking, or that he was anything other
than a legitimate air cargo entrepreneur.
Bout's companies shipped vegetables and
crayfish from South Africa to Europe, transported United Nations
peacekeepers from Pakistan to East Timor, and reportedly assisted
the logistics of Operation Restore Hope, the U.S.-led military
famine relief effort in Somalia in 1993. In the Democratic Republic
of the Congo, he explored investment opportunities in agriculture
and telecommunications and expressed interest in promoting conservation
of the country's national parks. "That was the staple stuff,"
a former associate, who refused to be named, said in an interview.
"The dodgy flights were all extras."
U.N. monitors have accused Bout of shipping
contraband weapons to rebel movements in Angola and Sierra Leone
and to the Taylor regime in Liberia. Bout and his associates operate,
or have operated, in Afghanistan, Angola, Cameroon, Central African
Republic, the Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Kenya, Liberia, Libya,
Congo-Brazzaville, Pakistan, the Philippines, Rwanda, Sierra Leone,
South Africa, Sudan, Swaziland, United Arab Emirates and Uganda,
according to reports by the United Nations, the U.S. State Department
and non-governmental organizations. Intelligence documents obtained
by ICIJ and interviews conducted with many of those following
and working in the global arms trade further support the allegations
Dubbed "the merchant of death"
by a British government official, Bout is a former Cold Warrior
who became the most notorious gunrunner of the post-Cold War period.
He was among the major arms suppliers to combatants in Africa
and Afghanistan, often in violation of international embargoes.
His planes carried weapons to war zones, and left loaded with
diamonds and other valuable resources, such as the mineral coltan,
used in the electronics industry. Bout's international shipping
business operated through a maze of companies registered around
the world, and he was an expert at maneuvering through the labyrinth
of brokers, transportation companies, financiers and transshipment
points. Shuttling among Africa, Russia, Europe, the Persian Gulf
and Central Asia, Bout left few, if any, trails. One associate
said he had never seen Bout put his signature on a document. There's
some question of what he would sign if he did: in law enforcement
circles, Bout is known simply as 'Victor B' due to his many aliases.
Until allegations surfaced in January
2002 that he had armed the Taliban in Afghanistan, Bout's global
empire operated with impunity in Western democracies, former East
Bloc nations, and the developing world. He relied on his network
of business partners to provide weapons that fueled some of the
most brutal conflicts of the last decade. No national government
had been able to do more than temporarily inconvenience him, and
the international community through the United Nations
had done nothing more than attempt to embarrass him.
"Bout would fly for anyone that paid"
During the Cold War, Africa had been one
of the arenas where client regimes and insurgencies battling them
had served as proxies for the United States and the Soviet Union.
When the Cold War ended, the involvement in the continent's affairs
of both the Soviet Union's successor states and the United States
waned. But the conflicts continued and presented a lucrative market
to arms dealers. Bout saw these opportunities and seized them.
His charisma, language skills and, not least, his ability to deliver
the goods and fly to places no one else would, gave him access
to political leaders and rebel commanders.
"Bout would fly for anyone that paid.
He was apolitical," the former associate told ICIJ. "He
is good because he takes the chances."
In May 1997, as rebel troops of Laurent
Kabila were approaching Kinshasa, the capital of what was then
Zaire, Mobutu and his immediate family fled to his ancestral village
Gbadolite. Realizing he was no safer there than in the capital,
Mobutu decided to leave Zaire on May 17. But because his luxurious
private jet was in Kinshasa, picking up more family members, Mobutu
relied on an old Soviet-built cargo plane to escape the rebel
forces, according to sources interviewed by ICIJ. Bout supplied
the aircraft. Rebel forces got close enough to fire on the plane
as it took off. "We were lucky it was a Russian plane. If
it had been a Boeing, it would have exploded," Mobutu's son
Nzanga is quoted as saying in Michela Wrong's book, In the Footsteps
of Mr. Kurtz, which chronicles Mobutu's misrule of the country.
Chichakli, the Syrian-born American who
worked for several companies owned by Bout, said Mobutu was just
one of many clients. "We do not support specific dictators,
presidents and so on. We're a transport company," he said
in an interview. "If you buy a ticket from A to B, we will
Between July 1997 and October 1998, point
A was Burgas, a Bulgarian city near the Black Sea, and point B
was purportedly Togo in Western Africa. Thirty-seven flights left
Burgas carrying weapons - including 20,000 82mm mortar bombs,
6,300 anti-tank rockets, 790 AK47 M1 assault rifles, 1,000 rocket
launchers, 500 anti-tank launchers, 100 anti-aircraft missiles,
20 missile launchers, and almost 15 million rounds of ammunition
- that ended up in the hands of Savimbi's UNITA forces in Angola,
according to a 2000 U.N. report. The shipments were worth $14
Chichakli denied that Bout was involved
in shipping weapons to UNITA, but said they did transport food
and mining equipment to Savimbi in November 1995. "Arms are
not a good commodity to trade," Chichakli said in an interview.
"You'll lose your client."
Angola the ultimate destination
for the weapons had long been a market that Bout, a former
Soviet air force officer, coveted. According to former associates,
Bout worked in Angola after his regiment was disbanded. Angola
had been caught in the middle during the Cold War; the United
States backed Savimbi and his UNITA rebels and the Soviet Union
supported the government of President Jose Eduardo dos Santos.
Angola has one of the largest fleets of
Russian-manufactured aircraft in Africa, a fact that was not lost
on Bout, who wanted to establish a maintenance facility for Russian
planes in South Africa, according to two former associates. Bout's
time in Angola gave him a chance to establish contacts and explore
fuure business prospects. He found one in UNITA.
From 1996 to 1998, UNITA was rearming
itself. A UNITA general told the United Nations that Bout was
their main supplier. Gen. Jacinto Bandua said that the flights
arranged by Bout "were known to combine arms with general
cargo in order to disguise their missions."
According to the United Nations, Bout
provided forged end-user certificates to KAS Engineering, a Gibraltar-registered
company, which contracted the Togo arms shipments from the Bulgarian
suppliers. End-user certificates are the documents that validate
the sales required whenever arms are shipped to ensure the
transaction is legal but since there is no international
standard they are easily forged.
A U.N. report states that "some of
the end-user certificates had been provided to the representative
of KAS Engineering (Gibraltar) through the captain of a flight
coming from Togo and some by express mail from Dubai, United Arab
Emirates. Further investigations disclosed that the mail was sent
by a Mr. Victor Bout.
The forged end-user certificates were
all based on a genuine document issued in July 1997 by Col. Assani
Tidjani, at the time Togo's Army chief of staff, which he had
given to a representative of UNITA, Marcelo Moises Dachala, or
"Karrica." Togo was a supporter of UNITA, and Dachala
was one of the rebels' main arms procurers.
The U.N. report concluded that UNITA was
dependent on this "lifeline" provided by brokers, shipping
agents and aviation companies who shift their "operations
in pace with the dynamics of the battlefield and the ever-changing
locations of the UNITA forces."
"The murder and mayhem of UNITA in
Angola, the RUF in Sierra Leone and groups in Congo would not
have been as terrible without Bout's operations," Peter Hain,
the British Foreign Office Minister for Europe, told ICIJ. Hain
has been at the forefront of the international effort to expose
criminal networks behind Africa's trade in small arms and the
"conflict diamonds" that fund such purchases. Hain also
said that the danger posed by Bout was clear in his supply of
weapons to another deadly regime: the Taliban.
Supplying the Taliban
According to a Belgian intelligence document
first reported by ICIJ in January 2002, Bout earned $50 million
selling weapons to the Taliban in the late 1990s. Another European
intelligence source independently verified the sales, and an intelligence
document from an African country in which Bout operated claim
that Bout ran guns for the Taliban "on behalf of the Pakistan
Bout, in a statement, denied any association
with the Taliban or al Qaeda and with "arms traffickers and/or
trafficking or the sale of arms of kind [sic] anywhere in the
world." A Pakistani official denied that Pakistan served
as a conduit for weapons shipped to the Taliban, saying that Pakistan
abided by the Dec. 19, 2000, U.N. arms embargo imposed on Taliban-controlled
Afghanistan and actively promoted interdiction. The weapons allegedly
supplied by Bout were delivered before the sanctions were in place.
Bout's relationship with the Taliban began
in August 1995, when the radical Islamist movement was trying
to overthrow President Burhanuddin Rabbani's government in Kabul.
One of Bout's planes flying from Albania via Sharjah and transporting
small arms and military equipment on behalf of Israeli company
Long Range Avionics to Rabbani was intercepted by a MiG-21. The
plane was forced to land in Taliban-controlled territory, according
to the ICIJ investigation.
Bout, together with Russian diplomats,
met Mullah Omar and other Taliban leaders to negotiate the release
of the detained crew in Kandahar, but they were not successful.
A year later, on Aug. 16, 1996, the seven Russian crewmembers
disarmed their guards and took off in the Il-76 for Sharjah, according
to press reports. The Washington Monthly later quoted an unnamed
source, who said he believed Bout turned the situation to his
advantage by establishing contacts with the Taliban.
After being a blip on the radar screen
of the international community since the mid-1990s and operating
with impunity for years in Africa's conflict zones, Bout's profile
rose markedly after he was linked to supplying the Taliban, which
gave military support to al Qaeda. The United Arab Emirates, the
main base for his operation, told the United Nations in early
2002 that his companies were prohibited from operating there and
banned him from entering. In February 2002, Belgian authorities
issued an international arrest warrant through Interpol for him
on "money laundering practices and criminal conspiracy."
The case is still pending.
Chichakli, who lives in Texas and was
named by the United Nations as being Bout's chief financial manager,
said U.S. authorities had not contacted him about Bout, even though
Bout listed the Texas corporate address for San Air General Trading,
a United Arab Emirates-based company owned by former Bout employee
Serguei Denissenko, as his destination when he applied for a visa
to come to the United States in summer 2000. Chichakli "clearly
has connections to Bout," Lee S. Wolosky, a former National
Security Council official told ICIJ. Wolosky, who closely followed
the international arms trade, said the connection "concerned
me and others at the National Security Council," but that
there was a limit to what the White House could do, aside from
referring the case to law enforcement. "U.S. authorities
know everything about Bout," Chichakli said.
On Feb. 28, 2002, Bout surfaced in Moscow
to defend himself. Just a few blocks from the Kremlin, he walked
into the studios of radio station Ekho Moskvy to protest his innocence
in a live interview. "What should I be afraid of?" Bout
said. "I haven't done anything in my life to worry aboutI
deal exclusively with air transportation. And I have never been
involved in arms trade. I have never taken part in it."
The same day, the Russian news agency
Interfax quoted Igor Tsyryulnikov, a spokesman for Interpol's
Russia bureau, saying that no arrest warrant had been received.
"We can say for sure that Bout is not in Russia," Tsyryulnikov
Paper trails leading nowhere
Flights carrying arms to Afghanistan were
the primary operations from Bout's European base at Belgium's
Ostend airport, frequently cited by human rights groups for hosting
companies and individuals involved in arms trafficking. Bout established
his first Western European company there in November 1994.
In March 1995, Bout and a Frenchman, Michel-Victor
Thomas, founded Trans Aviation Network Group (TAN), according
to U.N. and intelligence reports. Ronald De Smet, a Belgian pilot
who used to fly for the Saudi royal family, was TAN's chief executive
officer. Chichakli told ICIJ that De Smet, the son of a former
official of Gecamines mining company in Congo, "spearheaded"
the expansion of Bout's air cargo business in western Europe.
Between 1995 and 1997, TAN's operating base was Ostend airport.
De Smet and Thomas could not be reached for comment.
At first, most of the shipments from Ostend
were intended for Afghanistan, according to reports compiled by
local citizens' groups that monitor the airport. The Belgian intelligence
document obtained by ICIJ noted that Bout's company Trans Aviation
(TAN) delivered at least 40 tons of weapons from Ostend to Afghanistan.
Soon Bout was also reportedly associated with arms traffickers
who armed Hutu extremists carrying out the Rwanda genocide. In
1996, two years after the genocide in Rwanda, Bout and a group
of European arms traffickers in Ostend were arming Hutu forces
in Congo, according to Johan Peleman, a U.N. investigator into
But Ostend did not remain an ideal base
for Bout's operations. After details of the shipments to Afghanistan
were reported in the local media, Bout packed up his possessions,
moved out of his home, and left Belgium in June 1997. TAN had
already vacated its Ostend headquarters. And Belgian authorities
started an investigation into allegations of illegal arms shipments
out of Ostend and money laundering. But Bout wasn't ready to give
up on Belgium entirely. A company called Air Cess, registered
in Liberia, moved into the offices vacated by TAN. Air Cess listed
Bout as its director. Later in the 1990s, Bout allegedly transferred
the daily operations of Air Cess to his brother Serguei.
Such arrangements are typical of how Bout
did business. He established a veritable
web of companies, some of which he ran, some of which were run
by former employees and associates of his, obscuring his involvement
in the arms trade. Air Cess, for example, though registered in
Liberia, operated in Ostend, Geneva, and Sharjah in the United
The planes that were the backbone of his
operations either flew under "flags of convenience"
that is, registered in countries that allowed him to circumvent
international regulations on air cargo or from airports
like Burgas and Ostend that are known for their lax oversight
of air freight operations, or from Sharjah. The United Arab Emirates
is a major financial center and crossroads for east-west trade.
With its large volume of transiting cargo, its bank secrecy laws,
and its bustling free trade zones, it is a perfect base for arms
dealers. According to the United Nations, almost all of Bout's
aircraft operated out of the United Arab Emirates regardless
of where they were registered. Bout used Sharjah as an "airport
Bout excelled at getting around international
rules and regulations governing the cargo industry, thanks in
part to his connections. The industry lacks effective oversight
and the regulations are viewed as being out of date by industry
associations. Shipping agents and brokers are unregulated, which
makes it difficult to tell who is a legitimate operator and who
is not. Airfreight documents do not require cross-referencing
of the goods described in the arms export and import licenses.
Arms shipments are often described as engineering, mining or agricultural
equipment. One is not required to specify the travel route or
any possible sub-contractors and the ultimate customer.
In addition to the lax and outdated regulations,
it is not difficult for someone who knows the system to change
the aircraft registration from one country to another something
Bout and his associates took advantage of. "Flag of convenience"
countries allow aircraft to operate without the same level of
cargo documentation. It is not even necessary for an airplane
to be physically present in a such a country in order for it to
be registered there.
Indeed, there's a cottage industry in
shifting aircraft registrations around the globe. Michael Harridine,
for example, not only can provide services such as aircraft registration
and operators' certificates, but openly advertises the fact, according
to the United Nations. Harridine, who runs Kent-based Aircraft
Registration Bureau in the United Kingdom, now offers a full range
of services for the Equatorial Guinea Civil Aircraft Register
a country to which Bout moved most of his aircraft registrations
in 2001. According to a December 2000 United Nations report, Harradine
can provide a client with a company name, air operators certificates,
full aircraft and company documentation, ferry permits and validations
for the crew.
A maze of companies
After Bout left Belgium in 1997, southern
Africa became the base of his entrepreneurial efforts. According
to the United Nations, Bout used his expertise to expand the trade
in weapons there. "[L]ocal carriers had the established routes
and well formed contacts in the area, but lacked capacity. Mr.
Bout, through his numerous contacts in the ex-Soviet air force,
was immediately able to provide the required capacity and, in
return, took advantage of the established routes and contacts
in the southern African region," the 2000 U.N. report on
Bout said. He also had the necessary capital: the proceeds from
selling weapons to Afghanistan helped Bout establish his business
interests in South Africa.
Bout's Liberian company, Air Cess, formed
a joint venture with Norse Air, a South African cargo company
headed by Dierdre Ward. That new company, registered with South
African authorities on Feb. 19, 1997, was called Pietersburg Aviation
Services and Systems (Pty) Ltd. but did business under the name
of Air Pass, according to intelligence files obtained by ICIJ.
Corporation records listed Valerii Naido, a Ukrainian pilot and
former Bout employee, as a director of Pietersburg Aviation Services
and Systems, along with Ward, the company's financial controller.
Bout owned 90 percent of Pietersburg Aviation,
and Ward owned the rest. In exchange for that 10 percent stake
in the company, Ward let Bout use Norse Air's charter operator's
license, which allowed Air Pass to operate in South Africa. Air
Cess used Norse Air to apply to South African aviation authorities
for its own foreign operators license. Ward, in comments to ICIJ,
characterized her relationship with Bout as "a straight business
operation" with shared premises. "Nothing illegal left
here," she said, adding that she had no idea that Bout was
accused of gun-running until much later when she started hearing
rumors through industry sources. Their business relationship ended
Bout's activities in South Africa soon
came under official scrutiny. Authorities launched an investigation
in 1998 and charged Bout's company with various violations, such
as busting U.N. sanctions by sending trucks, fuel tanks and other
supplies to UNITA-held areas of Angola. The inspections occurred
at a time when South African Airlines (SAA) was trying to increase
its cargo capability through its subsidiary SAF Air, according
to South African lawyer and law professor André Thomashausen,
who defended Bout against some of the charges. At the time, Bout
was more than just an arms trader: his legitimate operations made
him one of the largest air cargo operators in South Africa.
Thomashausen said that most of the charges
against Air Pass were mainly aimed at harassing Bout. "Bout
was attacked from all sides it was amazing," Thomashausen
said. "Authorities started showing up at all times measuring
equipment and aircraft parts, which was never done."
Bout did not rely on the courts alone
to protect his operations. "Before the company [Air Pass]
could be charged with 146 breaches of civil aviation law,"
read one intelligence document obtained by ICIJ, "the whole
operation was moved to Swaziland." Air Cess Swaziland (Pty)
Ltd. had been established on August 20, 1997, and obtained a two-year
operations license from the civil aviation authorities in Swaziland.
South African authorities alerted civil
aviation authorities in Swaziland that Bout's aircraft were "suspected
of involvement in illegal acts." In May 1998, "43 aircraft
operated by five companies including Air Cess and Air Pass"
were grounded because of "inadequate documentation,"
the African intelligence file shows.
Bout shifted bases again. On May 28, 1998,
he registered another company, Centrafrican Airlines, in Bangui,
the capital of the Central African Republic, which was licensed
to operate domestic flights two months later. The company had
an operations office in Sharjah, headquartered at Transavia Travel
Agency, a part of Bout's TAN group. The United Nations said in
2001 that an airplane belonging to Centrafrican Airlines had been
seen parked at airports in Sharjah and Ras-al-Khaimah in the United
Arab Emirates. According to a database of worldwide cargo aircraft,
Centrafrican Airlines operated several of the Air Pass and Air
Cess aircraft that were de-registered in Swaziland.
In January 2000, authorities in the Central
African Republic issued an arrest warrant for the director of
civil aviation, the local manager of Centrafrican Airlines, and
Bout. Allegedly, the three had "fabricated airworthiness
certificates, air operator permits and certificates of registration
for a great number of aircraft," according to a U.N. report.
Bout managed to escape the local authorities while the director
of civil aviation was sentenced to a year in prison for fraud
and forgery. In March 2000, Bout was sentenced in absentia to
two years in prison by a tribunal in the capital of Bangui after
an aircraft belonging to him used the markings of the state-owned
airline on a flight to Gabon. For unknown reasons, a Bangui court
absolved Bout of the charges three months later, on June 28, 2000,
according to the United Nations. Nevertheless, the office of Centrafrican
Airlines in Bangui was closed.
The company, however, lived on. By the
fall of 2001, Centrafrican Airlines shared an address and phone
number in the United Arab Emirates with San Air General Trading,
a company run by a former employee of Bout's, Serguei Denissenko.
According to the United Nations, both companies became part of
an entity called CET Aviation Enterprise in the Ajman Free Zone
in the United Arab Emirates. San Air General Trading, which also
registered in Texas with Denissenko, Chichakli and a Vladimir
Kviazeo as directors, acted as the commercial and operations agent
for Centrafrican Airlines.
Ultimately, all the filings and companies
led back to Bout. The United Nations reported that Centrafrican
Airlines, San Air and Transavia Travel Cargo in Sharjah "all
appear to have originated from the Transavia Network (TAN [Trans
Aviation Network] Group) which originated in Ostende, Belgium."
In 2001, Centrafrican Airlines aircraft
registered in the Central African Republic were re-registered
in Equatorial Guinea, according to the United Nations. Naido,
the former Bout pilot and one of the directors of Pietersburg
Aviation Services and Systems, assisted an agency that registers
planes in Equatorial Guinea, according to the United Nations.
Naido also ran a company called CET Aviation in Equatorial Guinea.
A former Bout associate told ICIJ that Naido was "Bout's
number two" in South Africa.
'A covert network'
By 1999, it appeared that the efforts
of the South African authorities and the setbacks in Swaziland
had caused Bout to cease operations in southern Africa. He had
put his Sandhurst home on the market in 1998, and appeared to
have given up on his lucrative cargo business in the region. However,
investigative reports obtained by ICIJ reveal that he just changed
his tactics. "Bout is now operating a covert network of sub-contractors
consisting of smaller Russian operators," one document states,
adding that "there were 36 flights of his [Bout's] aircraft
through South Africa" in 2000 and another 16 up to March
According to U.N. reports, intelligence
documents and interviews with sources, these smaller Russian sub-contractors
operated mainly out of South Africa. Indeed, Yuri Sidorov, Andrei
Kossolapov and Victor N. Zieleniuk all run legitimate cargo businesses
out of South Africa. They also ferry arms to Angola, the Congo,
and Rwanda, according to intelligence and other investigative
reports obtained by ICIJ. Sidorov, Kossolapov and Zieleniuk did
not respond to requests for comment.
Some reports suggested that both Sidorov
and Kossolapov competed with Bout before they started to work
with him, but Chichakli denied this. "Buying an aircraft
is one thing, running an air cargo business is something different,"
Chichakli said. He said Bout was the only one who had the skills
and know-how to master the logistics of a far-flung international
One intelligence document, which ICIJ
could not independently verify, identified Yuri Sidorov, Bout's
former chief pilot, as a member of "Russian Organisatziya"
or Russian organized crime. A former Bout associate told ICIJ
that Sidorov was "one of the pioneers in the cargo industry"
in South Africa and "is involved with Volga Air," a
company that operated 10 Antonov aircraft. The intelligence document
alleged that Volga Air supplied the Rwandan-backed rebel army
Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD) in the Congo. It also claimed
that one aircraft was also dedicated to supplying UNITA on almost
a daily basis. Sidorov is one of the directors of Volga Air, according
to South African incorporation records. He worked for a South
Africa-based Russian company in the early 1990s called Romoco.
Kossolapov, another of Bout's subcontractors,
has also been connected to Romoco. A former Bout associate described
Kossolapov as a "maverick that always wanted to go at it
alone." The source said Bout took the maverick under his
wing; Kossolapov also did some of the logistic work for Bout after
he sold his house and moved from South Africa.
Bout's subcontractor has some notable
business partners of his own. According to the United Nations,
one of Kossolapov's business partners is Zieleniuk, who runs News
Air and is the director of Mega Manufacturing Holdings, which
was set up by Rosvooruzheniye, the Russian state weapons manufacturing
company, to build a client base for arms deals. Zieleniuk owns
an Antonov-12 aircraft stationed at Entebbe in Uganda and has
military connections in the Congo and Zambia. One U.N. report
said Bout is "strongly suspected to be connected to Russian
organized crime," and the African intelligence document obtained
by ICIJ alleged that Zieleniuk, Sidorov and Bout all belonged
to the same Russian organized crime syndicate.
Bout's man in Liberia
Bout's connections to arms deals were
often shrouded by middlemen. One such was Sanjivan Ruprah, a politically
well-connected Kenyan businessman who aided Bout in his dealings
with Liberia's president Charles Taylor. "The actions of
Sanjivan Ruprah are equally odious as those of Victor Bout,"
Hain, the British Foreign Office minister, said. "He supplies
diamonds and brings in arms with Victor Bout's assistance."
According to the United Nations, Ruprah
acted as a middleman between Bout and Taylor, assisting in supplying
rebels in eastern Congo and the Revolutionary United Front (RUF)
in Sierra Leone. An October 2002 U.N. report said Bout operated
two companies in the Congo that gave logistical support to the
various foreign armies and criminal networks involved in the exploitation
of that country's mineral resources.
Ruprah told ICIJ that he has known Bout
since April 1998, and made use of his planes for legitimate purposes
only. "I utilized his aircraft as did several other
companies, as well as various African governments and I believe
the [United Nations] several times for transporting my mining
equipment." He also denied any connection to arms trafficking.
Associated with the Kenyan subsidiary
of Branch Energy, a British company that owned diamond rights
in Sierra Leone, Ruprah introduced Executive Outcomes, the South
African mercenary company, to the government of Sierra Leone in
1995. EO provided security for mining company Branch Energy and
helped the government successfully turn the war against the Revolutionary
United Front from mid-1995 to early 1997.
Ruprah denied any connection to Executive
Outcomes. He further stated that, "My business has been predominantly
diamond mining since 1996 and I have been awarded completely official
and legal concessions for the same." He dismissed allegations
that he had traded in conflict diamonds as "rumors."
Ruprah is closely connected to the Liberian
government, and was authorized to act as a worldwide agent for
the Liberian Civil Aviation Regulatory Authority in November 1999,
giving him authority to issue aircraft registration certificates.
Bout registered several aircraft in Liberia. Ruprah was also given
a Liberian diplomatic passport in the name of Samir M. Nasr, making
it easier for him to avoid the travel ban imposed by the United
Nations. In his response to ICIJ, Ruprah said he "maintained
a fairly good relationship" with Taylor and his government.
In an Oct. 2001 report, the United Nations
noted that Ruprah "carries additional authorization from
the Liberian International Ship and Corporate Registry."
The same United Nations report says that
the Liberian International Ship and Corporate Registry (LISCR)
made two payments totaling $925,000 to San Air General Trading
the United Arab Emirates-based company that acted as the
agent for Bout's Centrafrican Airways through a bank in
the United Arab Emirates for arms and transportation in 2000.
LISCR, based in Vienna, Virginia, outside Washington, D.C., channels
$18 million a year to the Liberian government and acknowledged
to the United Nations that it had made payments to non-government
Ruprah, whose links to conflict diamonds,
arms smuggling and mercenaries in West Africa were first exposed
by the United Nations in 2000, moved to Belgium in mid 2001 and
was immediately put under surveillance by Belgian intelligence.
At the time, his relationship with Taylor, the Liberian president,
had started to deteriorate, and his wife, the sister of Rally
for Congolese Democracy-Goma (RCD) leader Adolphe Onusumba, was
severely ill. (She later died.)
After a three-year investigation by Belgian
authorities into companies suspected of involvement in laundering
the proceeds of Bout's arms sales, Ruprah was arrested in Uccle,
an exclusive neighborhood in Brussels, on Feb. 5, 2002. He was
charged with criminal conspiracy and possession of false passports.
The arrest was untimely for the United States since Ruprah was
in frequent contact with U.S. authorities, with whom he was trying
to negotiate a deal to talk about past weapons deliveries to the
Taliban and possibly al Qaeda.
Ruprah was later released and jumped bail
in Belgium. He was arrested again in
northern Italy on Aug. 2, 2002, and is being investigated for
alleged criminal association and possession of a false passport.
Ruprah's lawyer, Stefano Sangiovanni, told The Associated Press
that his 36-year old client had helped Bout transport some mining
equipment to Africa but denies any further involvement with Bout.
Italian authorities ruled him a flight
risk and moved him to a high-security prison near Milan, but said
that Ruprah would likely be released since the charges were not
serious enough to keep him incarcerated. In September 2002, Ruprah
was released from jail but ordered to report daily to Italian
police while the investigation continues.
While Bout's use of shell companies, middlemen
and current or former employees to obscure his role in trading
arms has been well established, one crucial question remains about
his operations: what are the sources of the sophisticated weaponry
that Bout sold? Or, as one retired businessman who specialized
in black market gunrunning for the U.S. government told ICIJ,
"You don't just walk into Tirana or Romania and say give
me tanks. It just doesn't work that way."
Several sources involved in the weapons
trade, interviewed by ICIJ, noted Bout's "deep connections"
with Ernst Werner Glatt, reputedly one of Washington's favorite
gunrunners during the Cold War. Glatt also had ties to Washington's
Cold War opponent. He was "very well ensconced in downtown
Moscow," one source said. "He was so tight with the
KGB in the early 1990s that they even tried to get him into the
building next door to their headquarters." Glatt did not
respond to requests for comment.
There are also allegations that Bout has
ties to the director of Russia's Ministry of Internal Affairs.
Maj. Gen. Vladimir Marchenko, who was appointed in May 1998, is
a career counterintelligence officer who served in Federal Security
Bureau units in Krasnodar and Rostov, and as deputy head of the
FSB's anti-terrorism department. When he joined the Ministry of
Internal Affairs, the Russian press wrote that Marchenko "is
considered a specialist in organized crime among ethnic groups,
and specialists believe that his arrival will seriously change
the way things are done in the ISA."
According to the African intelligence
document obtained by ICIJ, Marchenko is also the head of a crime
syndicate carrying his last name. Marchenko allegedly recalled
Bout to Russia after the Angolan government canceled its business
with Bout when it found out in 1998 that the alleged gunrunner
had supplied both sides in the war. Marchenko and the Ministry
of Internal Affairs did not respond to several requests for comment.
Chichakli, who said Marchenko was "a business acquaintance"
of Bout's, nonetheless disputed that account. "Bout cannot
be recalled by anyone, because he works for no one.
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