(from Knack no. 20, 16 may 2001)
Written by Dirk Draulans (translated into English)
Source: De Criminele verhalen van de brave soldaat Bout
(Photos from other sources).
Daylight had gone in Mahagi Port, a fisherman's village on Albert Lake, in the northeast of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). But during the evening little lights turned up, first a few but then more appeared en before midnight hundreds of little lights hung above the dark water: a floating city.
The lights of the fishermen chased the tornado's of little flies away, those that make camping near the water so uncomfortable. The lightshow and the sultry night brought a quietness to Victor Butt, brought him to lyrical thoughts about his past: "one of he most beautiful landscapes I ever saw, was in Afghanistan in Spring. A third of the country was coloured blood-red by poppies"
Butt continued about the good old days, when he roamed Afghanistan on foot and spent the night with local people. The somewhat portly-build, but active and entertaining Russian, never spent too much words on romance. "A strange war", he qualified the war in Afganistan. "Sometimes land was conquered, only to sell it to the enemy. Those who were successful in production of heroine bought military successes. It saves manpower."
As a pragmatic man he sees opportunities everywhere. "There is quite a bit of heroine being smuggled from North Afghanistan to East Turkey, in aircraft which deliver kerosine", he told (with a wink of his eye). And yes, even NATO-aircraft were supposed to be in on this. The route continues via Bosnia to W-Europe.
Butt is the owner of a Equatorial-Guinea registered Mi-17 helicopter with which rebel leader Jean-Pierre Bemba of the "Front pour la Liberation du Congo (FLC) moves about. The Mi-17 is the transport version of a Russian attack-helicopter, but it can be converted back to its attack configuration. Pilot Mikhael Korolev aimed his aircraft without fail in the direction of the hilltop where Bemba insisted on camping. "Children", he qualified the fighters he transported. His mood did not improve when someone found out there wasn't enough beer and he was sent with his helicopter to a Ugandan village across the lake to do some shopping. 'Crazy', that's how he qualified this war.
Project Blood Stone.
Butt is supposed to be officially named Victor Anatoliyevich: that's what an Interpol document states; it is dated Dec 04th,2000 and it has the suspense name Project Blood Stone, a reference to the concept of the Blood Diamant. "Our" Victor uses at least 5 different names and passports from different countries.
According to a Russian passport he is supposed to have been born on 13Jan67 in Dushanbe,Tadzikistan; but he looks a lot older. In eastern Congo he is Victor Butt, manager of the Rwandan-based Central African Airways.
Bout, as we will continue to call him, likes to surround himself with people he knows. He boasts to have trained his 2 bodyguards (their presence of limited use as he behaved himself more like a tourist here in the Congo) himself while he was an officer in the Air Force. His professional career started, allegedly, as a navigator on the military base of Vitebsk, in what is now Belarus. He trained recrutes there later, for the GRU: the commando's of the Russian Air Force. He is also supposed to have worked as a translater with the Russian Peace-Keeping Forces in Angola.
His bodyguards in Congo originated from the GRU. One was a friendly man, who mainly dealt with logistics; the other was forever juggling a large, dangerous-looking Rambo-knife.... even when peeling a banana! And he took care of his boss not being photographed.
Bout hasn't forgotten his commando-days. In the little Congolese town of Bunia he slept with his comrades under a cloth in the grass, along the Ugandan-controlled airport. In the morning he set himself at a table at the edge of the ramp and talked through his satellite phone in Russian, English and French. Then he switched off his phone and enjoyed himself. He watched a documentary on video of Congolese village-life and took part in local peace negotiations, community meetings and talks with business people.
Bout's civilian life started in 1991, when the airforce base he worked at was disbanded upon the collapse of the Russian empire. The men started for themselves and went upon conquering the world with their airplanes. Afghanistan is supposed to have been their first target. It has been said that Bout was involved in 1993 with the Belarussian company called Transavia Export Cargo, logistically supporting the Belgian blue helmets in Somalia. Victor himself said he had good contacts in Somaliland and travelled there often, but he did not tell when and why: he was always sparse with concrete details.
A Russian claire-voyant.
Bout was probably introduced in Belgium by Roger Van Poyer, from Steenokkerzeel and involved in transports. He represents in Belgium the Angolan state-owned company TAAG.
Van Poyer has a few companies in Brussels, like Air Charter Center, specialised in cargo transport and residing in the Bergstraat 42 where also resided the first company started by Bout in Belgium (started in Nov94); he intended to use it to take over Air Charter Center.
But the takeover failed. The company was taken over by another Russian, one Jouri Koutchine, who died not long after. In March 1995 Bout moved to Ostend,Belgium (officially residing in Dubai,U.A.E by then) and he founded the Trans Aviation Network Group, which was presided by the Belgian pilot Ronald De Smet. He also officially resides in Dubai and is supposed to be mainly active in the Central African Republic. Bout did well in Ostend. Bought a villa for 17 million francs. He participated with Belgian dramas: he consulted a Russian claire-voyant about the disappearance of the lost girls Benaissa, Gheysbrechts and Stockmans.
Bout's moves in Belgium did not go unnoticed. Both the Military Intelligence Agency as well State Security keep files on him and his associates. The financial department of the BOB in Brussels monitored thousands of transactions in search of evidence for laundering money in the weapons trade. Payments were found from the Angolan Army in a technical description including a hand-drawn map of a military airbase in Afghan's Bagram. The Justice Office in Brugge opened an inquiry into infringements of economic laws. The laws on weapons did not apply: many flights left empty and 200 hundred parachutes can also serve a civilian purpose.
In July 1997 Bout left Ostend. He felt being watched. "People suspected me of transporting guns every day to all parts of the world, ranging from extremists in Turkey to rebels in Africa", he explained. "But even if I had paid some money here and there, this would not have been possible. They wanted me out: Russians are almost automatically being suspected from Maffia links. It is even being told that I would have hidden a large diamant stash for the Angolian rebel movement Unita. Rediculious."
Bout did not deny he bribed people in Ostend: "What would you expect from a country which brought us Agusta?" And he confessed that for resident permits he did not consult the official departments but instead went to the Turkish community: "it did cost more, but it got things going".
He did not complete forget about about Ostend. When he crossed paths with Reginald Moreels by accident, who was on recon in Congo for Minister of Foreign Affairs Lous Michel (PRL) , he immediately knew: a Belgian politician. Bouts good friend in Ostend, the 20'er Olivier Piret, whom he had met in his contacts with pilots, was the son of a fellow-doctor of Moreels. Piret helped his sister Nathalie to a job with Bout, first in S.Africa, later in Rwanda. He himself has little pleasure anymore from his ties with Bout. He lost a fiancee after an attack on the drive of Bout's villa in S.Africa and is now confronted with a huge amount of rumors about the natire of his dealings with the Russian; he dismisses them all as slander.
Bout is a master of disguise. The registration of his airplanes are mysterious. In the S.African Kingdom of Swaziland a Secretary of Transport ended up in jail in 1997 after he issued permits to Bout and his friends for 43 planes which had never been there. The South African authorities started an investigation into maffia connections with Air Pass, Bouts company in S.Africa.
Liberia faces at the moment the sanctions by the Security Council of the UN: all Liberian- registered planes have to remain grounded. Bout had in 1997 and '98, together with a British partner, almost complete control of the Liberian Civil Aviation Register and sold registration nmbers by fax! For a proper understanding: this would officially cost around 75.000 dollar a year.
The Liberians can find at the moment only 11 planes of the 34 supposedly registered in their country.
So it does not come as a susprise that Bout played a prominent role in 3 recent UN-reports. He is being portrayed as an expert in circumventing the sanctions layed down by the int'l community against rebel regimes. In Dec.2000 educational UN-reports were published about diamant-countries Angola and Sierra-Leone. The rebels of Sierra-Leone were being supplied with planes by Bout. In the summer of 2000 on 4 occasions Bout's planes landed in Liberia carrying arms, including helicopters, armoured vehicles and anti-aircraft guns. These were items which are clearly identified as weaponry, so one has to assume people were encouraged to look the other way. The UN concluded that the export of diamants from the UAE to Belgium had increased between 1996 and 1999 from 500 to 5.000.000 carats a year.
The report about Angola spends an entire chapter on Bout. It describes extensively how, between Jul97 and Sep98, he carried out 38 flights with weapons (including 188 122mm canons) from Burgas,Bulgary for the amount of 14 million dollars. Some of those flights started empty in Ostend. The unofficial end-destination was Togo, but the documents of the Togolese Department are supposed to have been falsified. According to the report the weapons went to the Inita-rebels. To mask his operations, Bout arranges friendly companies (such as Air Alexander and Planet Air) in Uganda and Rwanda to reserve routes which he will end up using instead of them. He is not afraid to falsify or change aircraft registrations en route.
A long nightmare.
Bout also appeared in a UN-report which was published last month about Congo, though less conspiciuous and under the name of Butt. The report states that he was first seen in Congo/Zaire when President Laurent-Desire Kabila (who has meanwhile been murdered) was still rebel leader. The UN thinks that Bout is the owner of most planes who operate, on Rwandan account, into Congo to retrieve Coltan.
Bouts men a are still active in Kigali. About 50 Russians crew 14 planes from Transavia Travel Agency. They permanently rent a floor in the Meridien Hotel. These people are flexibel, because Bout and his comrades are supposed to have supplied in 1996 Rwanda's main enemy: the Hutu militia in the camps of Eastern Congo. Six months before the UN published their reports about Angola and Sierra Leone, Air Cess flew Pakistani peace-keeping forces from Pakistan to East-Timor. At the moment an offer by Air Cess to operate UN Relief Flights to East-Timor is under consideration.
The activities by Bout and people of similar considerations are being mapped. There are Russian companies which lease over 200 Antonovs. The price of a little Antonov went down to 30.000 dollar, their operational costs not included. The sales of weapons is spreading from Bulgaria and Ukraine to Kirgyzie and Kazakhstan. Bout and his soldiers acquire with their logistical- and militaryu means a lot of power in large areas of Africa. Somalia, Sudan, Sierra Leone, Liberia, both the Congo's Burundi, Angola…. The list of areas the world can no longer control is becoming a nightmare
The international pressure on Bout is steadily increasing. He even boasts he can no longer get a visa for the US, which is slowly becoming obsessed by this man and hope the Belgians find something useful on him. The Central African Rep blocked some of Bout's planes for a while. In Slovakia, Moldova, and Uganda aircraft of Bout are grounded, allegedely with a load of helicopters and weaponry on board.
The pressure on the Emirates has also been increased. But Bout has a way of surrounding him with the right (in high places) people, preferably Kings and Ministers. In Dubai he befriended himself with Sultan Hamad Al Sawaidi, a nephew of the Emir, with whom he organised relief- and other flights under the company name of Flyngix, apparently operating both for the Taliban as well as the opposing party. Bout continues to dance around with his planes. Between Uganda and Northern Congo an Antonov operates with a registration from Kirgyzie and another one with the Liberian number EL-ALR, which was supposed to be grounded. But even in the Liberian Register that number is not to be found. So it is a ghost plane, its true nature and history unknown. The same goes for aircraft 9T-ALC and 9T-MLC. The prefix 9T is unknown, although it may be for domestic use in Congo. Possibly these are the first registrations for Bemba-land, because ALC and MLC are acronyms for Bemba's Armee de Liberation du Congo and Movement de Liberation du Congo.
The Congolese Free Trade Zone
Meanwhile, Bout is a regular visitor to FLC-chief Bemba. Bemba's army was at first supplied through the decrepid militairy airport of Entebbe in Uganda with an Ilyushin of Ukranian Cargo Airways, probably operating for account of the Ugandese Ministry of Defense. He himself flew around in a King Air of a South African company, which was leased by someone named Khalil: a Libanese diamant trader from Kisangani who now lives in the Uganda capital of Kampala. Khalil left one or more men, if necessary French prospectors, in every town which Bemba conquered.
But the men of the first hour disappeared from the scene. Since a few months Bemba uses for his logistics almost exclusively Bout's services. If the UN was ever to put sanctions to Rwanda, Uganda and their allied rebels in Congo, Bemba will be in the clear with Bout, a more exerienced sanctions buster cannot be found. The first contacts between these two are supposed to have been made in the summer of 2000. Bout worked mainly with the Rwandese then, but their President Paul Kagame was building a personal financial backlog of almost 2 million dollars, which brought the Russian to prospecting.
The commotion around his person does not effect Bout emotionally. Yes, he transported guns, so what, he owns transport planes and they have to work for their money. But he cannot personnaly keep checks with all activities of his businesses and with those he rents his planes to. And he is no weapons trader, though witnesses state he travels sometimes in person to Burgas, Bulgaria to check upon his loads of weapons. He is a business man. He studies possibilities to invest in the Congo, in agriculture and telecommunication. He sends geologists in jeeps (and with an armed escort) to prospect.
And he has a vision about Northern Congo. A region with enormous potential for investors, for people who want to stay long enough. That is why he, for instance, wants the National Parks to remain as such, for what else is there to do for business people? He even promotes long term preservation of the rain forrest. And he sees possibilities in the creation of a free-trade zone in the equatorial zone; it is a concept he is familiar with in Dubai. He can introduce (American) experts to do this. The airport of the bordertown Zongo would be ideally suited , on condition the runway will be extended by a kilometer.
Zongo is situated along the Ubangi-river, opposite Bangui, the capital of the Central-African Republic. This comes in handy, Bout says, as in that way he pulls one on the government there. With those extortionists he has a score to settle: they, in his absence, spoke a verdict of 2-year jail sentence over him last spring, for infringements on their aviations law.
Back to Victor Bout's file