An investigation into the illicit diamond trade


Revealed: ex-Soviet officer turns sanctions buster

In the murky world of arms trafficking, a Russian national has established himself as a premier player in Africa.

Victor Anatolevic Bout, a former Soviet air force officer, has "a stranglehold on sanctions- busting aerial freight", according to a western intelligence official.

He has been accused by the US, UK and South Africa of supplying arms to Unita, the Angolan rebel movement, despite a UN embargo. Unita has bought weapons with the proceeds of illicit diamond sales.

Bout, who lives in the United Arab Emirates, has a fleet of old Soviet aircraft that have prompted investigations in at least four countries.

Each time he is subjected to scrutiny, he moves his freight operations elsewhere.

The Financial Times has established that Interpol, the international police intelligence gathering organisation, has now opened a file on Bout. He is also under investigation in a number of western countries.

The authorities in the UAE are increasingly concerned about Air Cess, Bout's main company, which employs about 100 mainly Russian nationals at its operations office in Sharjah.

Officials at Sharjah civil aviation authority and Sharjah airport authority are worried that while Air Cess is not operating illegally within UAE, it may be breaking the law outside the country.

"What are these people doing?" said Sayid Mohamed el Hajri, deputy chairman of the Sharjah civil aviation authority. "We have to protect our airport from any hanky panky. Air Cess has to obey the law."

Bout gives the impression of leading a double life; he shelters his clandestine work behind legitimate activities. For example, in March this year Air Cess flew UN peacekeepers from Pakistan to East Timor. In the same month the UN alleged Bout was involved in Angolan sanctions busting.

Bout also appears to have some friends in high places. Two years ago he was invited to a royal wedding in Swaziland; Bout gave the married couple an antique silver candlestick worth R35,000 ($5,000).

Bout, 33, was an air force officer until the break up of the Soviet Union. "His regiment was disbanded and essentially they went private," said the western intelligence official. "It started with gun running to Afghanistan and then they discovered Africa."

UN observers in Angola spotted two of Bout's aircraft as landing in Unita territory on at least 10 occasions between October 1997 and January 1998.

The UN Fowler report in March said Air Cess had transported arms from Bulgaria to Togo on at least one occasion since 1997.

It accused Togo of forwarding weapons to Unita despite the imposition of UN sanctions in 1993 prohibiting the sale of arms to Unita.

Bulgaria has admitted to the UN that Bout visited the country between 1995 and 1999; last year he went to six weapons factories in the country.

The authorities in Belgium looked at Bout as part of an investigation in 1996 into allegations that Ostend airport had been used for illegal arms shipments. In 1997 Air Cess, then registered in Liberia, closed its Ostend office.

Bout then created a new air freight company in South Africa called Air Pass.

The authorities in South Africa began an investigation into Air Pass that culminated in the company being charged with 146 breaches of civil aviation law in 1998.

A former Air Pass official said a regular visitor to the office was Imad Kabir, a Lebanese arms dealer who the UN alleged was Unita's main weapons broker between 1995 and 1999.

The official said Bout would treat Kabir, who was always surrounded by bodyguards, with exceptional deference. >

Air Cess supported Air Pass through bank transfers. However, Bout would often bring $250,000 in cash to Air Pass's office in supermarket bags and place it in a safe.

South Africa alerted neighbouring Swaziland's civil aviation authority about a number of aircraft that Bout had registered in the country.

Swaziland grounded 43 aircraft operated by five companies including Air Cess and Air Pass in May 1998 because of inadequate documentation. A year later, 40 aircraft were deleted from Swaziland's register of civil aircraft.

Meanwhile, Bout set up Centrafricain Airlines in the Central African Republic in 1998. Some of the aircraft operated by the company were previously registered in Swaziland.

In March a Bangui tribunal sentenced Bout to two years in prison in his absence after an Ilyushin 62 belonging to Centrafricain Airlines, but using the markings of the country's state-owned airline, flew to Gabon.

The authorities in the CAR subsequently discovered the aircraft had inadequate documentation.

The FT made repeated attempts to interview Bout. His brother Sergei Bout, who is responsible for Air Cess's daily operations, said from the UAE: "Perhaps Victor has gone on holiday. I am not responsible for the situation. It may be a big joke by the UN."

Back to Victor Bout's file

Created: 19-5-02
Last updated 13.8.2005