The (UK) government has been flying supplies to Iraq using an airline linked to a Russian trafficker wanted for running arms to Al-Qaeda.
Jet Line International, which is used by the Department for International Development (DfID) for work in Iraq, has been named by the American government as being associated with Victor Bout, 37.
Bout has made millions of pounds from breaking United Nations sanctions and has been condemned by a British minister as a "merchant of death".
He is the subject of an international arrest warrant for allegedly flying weapons to Al-Qaeda and the Taliban shortly before the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
A second firm linked to Bout has also received DfID money to fly aid to Africa.
The government stopped using the firms once it found out about the alleged links to Bout, but they have received thousands of pounds of taxpayers' money. One flight alone for DfID this year is understood to have cost £42,000.
Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrats foreign affairs spokesman, said: "The British taxpayer is entitled to expect that public money will not be directed towards companies whose previous behaviour has been so far outside civilised standards."
Apart from the DfID contracts, Bout-linked airlines have also been used by the charity Oxfam and by Kellogg Brown & Root (KBR), the British-based firm expected to manage the £4 billion construction of two navy aircraft carriers.
Planes operated by companies associated with Bout are reported to have landed in Baghdad on at least 195 occasions on American military contracts. The CIA in October 2003 warned that Bout air cargo companies were profiting from reconstruction in Iraq, although it is unclear whether the intelligence was shared with Britain.
Jet Line International, the company used by DfID in Iraq, is an air freight carrier with offices in Ukraine. Civil Aviation Authority records show that Jet Line airlifted armour-plated vehicles to Baghdad for DfID. The consignment left Manston airfield in Kent in March on an Ilyushin cargo jet carrying no airline markings.
The airline is understood to have been identified as a Bout company in a warning letter circulated to diplomatic posts by the US State Department in June this year. The nature of the alleged links is unclear and Jet Line this weekend denied being associated with Bout.
Three weeks before the Baghdad flight, on February 27 this year, DfID hired a second company, Aerocom, to fly tents to Morocco after an earthquake. Aerocom, based in the former Soviet republic of Moldova, also flew from Manston.
The company, which is also understood to work with several operators including Jet Line, was named in a UN Security Council report in April 2003 as being involved in illegal smuggling or attempted smuggling of missile launchers, grenades, and automatic rifles from Serbia to Liberia.
The two firms were hired by DfID through Air Charter Service (ACS), based in Kingston, Surrey. Like DfID, ACS said this weekend it had stopped doing business with the airlines when it was informed that they allegedly had links with Bout.
Aerocom, which was accused in the UN report of illegally flying land mines to Africa, was used by the Halo Trust, a British charity which clears mines. The charity used Aerocom to fly de-mining equipment from Prestwick, near Glasgow, to Angola in February 2003 in an operation funded by DfID.
The airline was again used on April 28 this year (2004) by Oxfam to airlift relief supplies from Manston to Sudan.
Valentin Podarilov, the director-general of Aerocom, said: "Rubbish . . . we have nothing to do with any Victor Bout."
There is no evidence that the charities, DfID or ACS knew of any connection between the airlines and Bout at the time of the flights. Oxfam has since tightened its monitoring processes. A spokeswoman for DfID said: "Neither we nor our broker were aware of any allegations of wrongdoing against the (companies), which we obviously used in good faith."
In July, the US Treasury placed Bout on its blacklist of "specially designated nationals", freezing any of his private assets under American jurisdiction and banning US companies from doing business with him in person. His companies were not blacklisted, allowing them to continue trading.
The international arrest warrant for Bout was issued by Belgian authorities in February 2002. Despite this, Bout continues to live in Moscow, where he carries on his business.
Chris Yates, an aviation analyst for Jane's, the defence information group, and an expert on Bout, said: "This man seems to get away with anything. He has a high degree of protection at high level."
Wendy Hall, a spokeswoman for Halliburton, the Texas-based parent company of KBR, said its British subsidiary had hired an air freight company which had sub-contracted the work to another company linked to Bout. Hall said KBR would have terminated the contract had it known Bout's company was involved.
While Air Bas may still be operating (anno 2004) from Sharjah (being lead by Victor's brother Serguei Bout and in the US being represented by Richard Chichakli), Victor Bout (now known as Victor Lebede, who has over the past 2 years also been named as owner of Air Bas in reference books, although this could be a misspeling for Lebedev) is now been reported to be flying daily from Almaty, Kazakhstan. Irbis Airlines has 4 Ilyushin Il-18s working, of which my correspondent saw 2. Permission for photographs were refused because "they were in dispute with the British Government"...
JP Airline Fleets, Scramble and Air-Britain magazines, Peter Hillman, Dick Gilbert, Steve Kinder, email exchanges on Yahoo's "Russian Propliners" and other forums.
Back to Victor Bout's file
Shelley Saywell wrote, directed and produced (in 2008) a documentary about the 'small arms trade'. Small arms are the real weapons of mass destruction, killing more than half a million people a year, spreading like a disease and destabilizing entire regions.