Victor Bout, Africa's merchant of death

UN names former KGB officer as millionaire gun-runner

The Guardian - December 23, 2000

Owen Bowcott and Richard Norton-Taylor
Saturday December 23rd, 2000

A Russian arms dealer and former KGB officer who is undermining international sanctions by supplying arms for diamonds to rebel forces in Africa is named and shamed in a ground-breaking report published by the UN yesterday.
Victor Anatoliyevich Bout, who holds at least five passports and uses as many as seven aliases, is identified as the businessman responsible for fuelling civil wars across Africa, including conflicts in Sierra Leone, Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo. He is accused of ferrying heavy weapons, automatic rifles and ammunition from eastern Europe to rebel groups that control diamond mines.

Mr Bout's arms-dealing record in Africa was highlighted by the Guardian in January. Now, in extraordinarily detailed dossiers, the UN has exposed the use of forged end-user arms certificates by a secretive, commer cial network at the heart of some of the most protracted and destabilising conflicts in Africa. A UN report focusing on Angola alleges that Mr Bout sent 38 flights carrying heavy military equipment to the rebel movement Unita.

Mr Bout's network of companies has, allegedly, worked with a Briton, named in the report as Michael Harridine. He, it is said, was able to "obtain or change aircraft registration to certain 'less scrupulous' countries". Such "flags of convenience" allow paperwork to be circumvented, according to the UN.

At one stage Mr Harridine, along with Mr Bout's partner, a Belgian pilot by the name of Ronald De Smet, allegedly held the authority to conduct business in the UK on behalf of the Liberian aircraft register. Mr Harridine, who is said to work through a UK company based in Kent, Aircraft Registration Bureau, could not be contacted yesterday.

Earlier this week a separate UN report claimed that Mr Bout's fleet of ex-Soviet planes, registered as Air Cess, had been used to deliver attack helicopters, armoured vehicles and anti-tank mines to Liberia, which supports the RUF rebels in neighbouring Sierra Leone.

So far the civil war in Sierra Leone has claimed 50,000 lives; the war in Angola has resulted in as many as 500,000 deaths since it began in 1975.

Responding to the latest UN study, the Foreign Office minister, Peter Hain, declared: "Bout is the leading merchant of death who is the principal con duit for planes and supply routes that take arms, including heavy military equipment, from east Europe, principally Bulgaria, Moldova, and Ukraine, to Liberia and Angola.

"The UN has exposed Bout as the centre of a spider's web of shady arms dealers, diamond brokers, and other operatives, sustaining the wars. Without someone like him we would be much, much, closer to ending the conflicts."

Mr Bout, 33, was born in Tashkent and trained with the Russian air force. He conducts his illicit deals from the privacy of a walled compound in the Gulf state of Sharjah, which is part of the United Arab Emirates.

Yesterday's UN report, which is unusual in focusing so much on one man, lists Mr Bout's ad dress and telephone number, his date of birth, his wife's name and a breakdown of his gun-running and air freight contacts around the world.

"[Our] objective has been to try to shed light on the interaction between Unita and shady arms dealers and transporters who have been instrumental in the rearmament of [Unita] for profit and greed rather than ideology," the UN investigators say.

When the Guardian called his villa in Sharjah yesterday, a woman that "he was arriving home today". Later, she said his flight from Moscow had been delayed. Mr Bout is said to live with his wife, Alla, and her father, Zuiguin, who, according to the UN report, "at one point held a high position in the KGB, perhaps even as high as a deputy chairman".

"Victor Bout is often referred to in law enforcement circles as Victor B. There is a good reason for this, as he is thought to have at least five aliases and it is highly likely there are several more that aren't known about."

His aliases include: Boutov, Butt, But, Budd, Bouta, all with Victor or Viktor as the first name. He is also thought to call himself Vadim Aminov and Victor Bulakin. Of Mr Bout's role in the civil war in Angola ,the report says: "It takes an internationally organized network of individuals, well funded, well connected and well versed in brokering and logistics, to move illicit cargo around the world without raising the suspicions of law enforcement." One such organisation is that "headed, or at least to all appearances outwardly controlled, by Victor Bout".

Most of the money raised by Unita to buy arms comes from its illicit diamond sales, which in 1999 alone were worth $150m. Among the military hardware believed to have been purchased recently from Bulgaria, for example, by Unita, were: anti-aircraft guns, 122mm propelled canons, anti-tank rockets, anti-aircraft missiles and 20,000 mortar bombs. The value amounted to $14m. Most sales were registered on end-user certificates featuring the African state of Togo.

"Subsequent investigations revealed that some of the certificates had been provided _ partly by express mail from the United Arab Emirates," the UN report says, adding that "the mail was sent by a Mr. Victor Bout."

Bulgaria informed the UN that with only one exception, "the company Air Cess, owned by Victor Bout, was the main transporter of these weapons". Most of the 38 arms flights involved delivered their illegal cargoes to Unita-held territory in eastern Angola.

Their final destinations were registered as Kindu in the Congo or Mwanza in Tanzania "to give a semblance of legitimacy".


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Created: 19-5-02 Updated: 3-8-02