The Guardian, Saturday August 5, 2000
Former Russian partner accused of supplying arms to African rebels
Special report: Sierra Leone
Saturday August 5th, 2000
A leading British air charter company, which has been flying supplies into Sierra Leone for the UN and the British army, had a two-year business partnership with a Russian named as the principal sanctions buster for rebel forces in both Sierra Leone and Angola.
Air Foyle of Luton, Bedfordshire, worked with Victor Bout, a former KGB officer, through its South African agency, Norse Air Charter, from June 1996 until Bout fled the country in May 1998 after the South African authorities suspected him of smuggling.
Run by Christopher Foyle, the nephew of the late bookshop owner, Christina Foyle, Air Foyle said it was taken in by Bout and insisted that it broke no international or national laws.
Bout, along with other sanctions busters, was named in the House of Commons in January by the foreign minister, Peter Hain, who accused him of smuggling arms to Unita in Angola.
Under parliamentary privilege Mr Hain repeated the allegations in June, adding that Bout was also supplying the Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone. Last week Mr Hain added in a written answer: "There can be no excuse for any state to provide support for Bout in his continuing flouting of UN sanctions."
In March the UN committee monitoring Angolan sanctions said that, in exchange for diamonds, Bout's planes had smuggled embargoed supplies to Unita from South African airports and arms from Bulgaria.
Ironically, in the same month, UN Pakistani peacekeepers were flown to East Timor on one of his transporters. A UN spokeswoman said the contract to move the troops had been handled entirely by the Pakistani air force.
Bout's fleet of about 20 ex-Soviet Antonov and Ilyushin aircraft, operating under the name Air Cess, is now based in Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates and registered in various African countries where he has set up associated cargo companies.
Bruce Bird, head of Air Foyle's cargo operations, said: "It is a regrettable feature of doing business with companies and individuals of the former Soviet Union that one is never quite sure what they are up to.
"Victor presented himself to all of us as a reputable business person. I had a lengthy conversation with him in South Africa and he appeared to be a sensible, practical person who understood the business. We were not aware that Bout was under any suspicion until it was reported in the papers."
Bout's operations first attracted suspicion when his Liberian-registered aircraft were based at Ostend airport in Belgium in 1995. He left Ostend in 1997 after a UN and Belgian investigation into allegations that a number of elderly Russian planes were supplying arms to the extremists responsible for the Rwandan genocide.
But by that time he had also set up business in southern Africa and the Gulf.
On June 1 1996 Air Cess registered a joint venture company in South Africa with Norse Air called Pietersberg Aviation Services Systems (Pty) Ltd, trading as Air Pass. Holding 90% of the shares, Bout became a director with Deirdre Ward, owner of Norse Air, which has been Air Foyle's agent for about seven years. Mrs Ward became managing director and took a 10% shareholding.
Bout's large planes gave Norse Air a big boost. In June 1997 it announced that it had been awarded an ungraded air charter licence. In September that year Air Pass was officially launched at a reception in Johannesburg.
"We attended a very enjoyable launch party for Air Pass, which was attended by all and sundry in the SA aviation community including, I believe, government officials and regulators," Mr Bird said.
Mrs Ward at first denied she was anything more than a broker for Bout's aircraft. When presented with the company records, she said she had been managing director of Air Pass for a year. "Victor made the decisions as owner/chairman, and I merely looked after the operation while he was away," she said.
In her first interview with the Guardian, Mrs Ward said: "Bout didn't have an operating licence and we did, and we were short of aeroplanes. We introduced customers to him, mainly mining houses. He was very intelligent, very personable.
"We realised he may have been up to no good elsewhere, but every flight that left here was checked by immigration, customs, the border police, the normal police and a dog called Rex. Nothing illegal ever left on a flight under my control. It was only after he left that I was told Interpol was looking for him."
Air Foyle has been the worldwide sales agent for the Antonov company in Kiev for 10 years. It recently shipped British helicopters to flood-stricken Mozambique and helped Richard Branson to move his Global Explorer balloon to Morocco two years ago. The MoD is one of its principal customers, although it failed this year to secure the contract for the RAF's short-term strategic airlift.
Bout did not reply to the Guardian's fax or email.
Back to Victor Bout's file
Was this Boeing 707 connected to (intended) arms smuggling ?