This page has been copied for the sake of archiving (aviation history);

Ostend Airport arms' connection

At the end of May 2000 an attempt was made to fly four helicopters by Ilyushin freighter from Ostend to the Congo (ex-Zaïre but hereafter referred to as the Congo). President Laurent Kabila had ordered them for military purposes. Customs prevented the cargo from leaving Ostend for Kabila's Congo. But permission was granted to transfer the helicopters to England and nobody was afterwards concerned about the helicopters' final destination nor how they reached it. The embarrassing cargo disappeared and nobody seemingly felt guilty.

It becomes imperative to obtain a clear image of Ostend Airport as a pivot of the international arms' trade.

Based on data of inside informers and that of the International Peace and Information Service (hereafter IPIS), this report will try to show, how often intricate networks involved in arms' running to conflict-torn countries operate and, more specifically, the involvement of Ostend Airport. The war zones concerned are mostly Angola, Sierra Leone and the Region of the Great Lakes in Central Africa, all of them regions where mass-murders have occurred and where many survivors have been left permanently mutilated, for the sake of the diamond trade, monetary gain and power mania.

IPIS is an independent study and information service, covering international relations in general and in particular carrying out studies on arms' trade, mercenary organisations and related subjects. It operates as an intermediary between, on the one hand, journalists and the research community and, on the other, peace, human rights and Third World movements. [1]

Our own data has been gathered from local informers and freelance investigators, who for their own safety, are not mentioned by name.

<<< Text removed:
It has been reported that your Web site, ruudleeuw.com, allegedly contains material in violation of our Terms of Service.


I was notified by a legal representative of David Tokoph. 
Specifically, the complaint is against an article posted on the site on or after 24th March 2001 that is still accessible on the Internet.  The words appearing in the article include the following -text removed-
In the Acceptable Use/Illegal Activity section of our terms of service you will see that we prohibit the following:
Distributing hate speech, or any other content that is obscene, abusing, which could be considered libelous and defamatory.
I request that you remove all defamatory/libelous content within 24 hours, otherwise I may be required to disable your account.

Technical Support Team Lead - MidPhase [30Mar2011]

UPDATE: someone wrote me in Dec.2015: "Mr. David P. Tokoph has just recently attempted to erase a conviction from the records (in the 1970s he had engaged in a series of fraudulent loan transactions), to clear his name I presume and to smooth over his business processes, but without success. Just months after the Court of Appeal rejected his appeal, Tokoph passed away."

2. A company named Sky Air used Ostend Airport in 1996 as the home base for its then 33 year-old Boeing 707, Liberian-registered as EL-JNS. In October 1996, the 'plane flew a number of boxes containing Kalashnikovs from Bulgaria to Rwanda. [3] In 1997 it made at least 25 flights from Ostend. Under suspicion of illicit actions, the 'plane then adopted the airport of Sharjah (United Arab Emirates) as its new home. In 1998 Sky Air was, together with Air Atlantic Cargo, responsible for airlifting some 2,000 Kalashnikovs, 180 rocket-launchers, 50 machine-guns and ammunition from Bulgaria to the UN-embargoed Sierra Leone. [4] The Pakistani owners of Sky Air seem to have strong connections with a new Ostend-based company, Avicon Aviation, founded in May 1998 by a Pakistani resident in Karachi. The man in charge of the Ostend company is another Pakistani living in Ostend.

Air Atlantic Cargo [5], owned by Nigerians, had two Nigerian-registered Boeing 707s, which in 1997 made a combined total of 126 flights from Ostend Airport.

3. Liberia World Airlines has its main office in Gibraltar. In 1988 a Belgian company NV Liberia World Airlines Belgium was constituted, which went bankrupt in 1994. The company was co-owned by a Liberian citizen and a native of Kinshasa. The latter is now resident in a hamlet on the Franco-Belgian border. A few weeks after the bankruptcy, the Brussels-based company Westland Aviation, owned by the same person, was transferred to the Ostend Airport. The company obtained a very substantial injection of new money, fifty per cent of which was contributed by a Swiss company, Avtec AG, Basel.

Westland Aviation still operates from Ostend and had two DC8 aircraft based on that airport. One of them recently had its last authorised flight in Europe and it took the opportunity to fly to Uganda. The other Liberian-registered aircraft EL-AJO was until recently still operational. In 1995 it was accused by Human Rights Watch (hereafter HRW) of illegal arms' transport. The Belgian authorities assured HRW that an investigation was already in progress as a result of their own information. In spite of the investigation, the same aircraft was, in August 1996, again convicted of illicit transport. The aircraft was impounded by local authorities in Goma, the Congo, after it was found to be carrying military clothing destined for Uganda and hidden under a load of relief supplies. [6]

Nevertheless until at least 2000 a great number of humanitarian flights were assigned to the same airplane EL-AJO. This means that Belgian authorities are not interested in the reports of HRW or of similar pressure groups and consequently have omitted taking preventive action. As a result, certain companies manage to make a profit from acts of war, by mixing relief supplies with military equipment.

A company closely connected with Westland Aviation, Airline Management Group, runs a hangar where, besides LWA-aircraft, other old airplanes receive maintenance or are refurbished. Whether AMG owns a maintenance licence, is not clear.

Meanwhile, Liberia World Airlines reappeared as Ducor World Airlines (hereafter DWA) and acquired in May 2001, with the contribution of Avtec AG, a Lockheed TriStar from LTU Airways, Bulgarian-re-registered as LZ-TPC. The aircraft, stored at Ostend Airport, has been converted to a freighter. At the end of 2001 DWA intended to acquire an additional four aircraft to replace its fleet of two DC8 aircraft, EL-AJO and EL-AJQ. It was first intended to register all of these aircraft in Bulgaria, as Liberian planes were then grounded due to United Nations restrictions. However, LZ-TPC was again re-registered in Equatorial Guinea as 3C-QQX. Due to licence difficulties yet to be solved, it will remain parked at Ostend Airport for an unknown period of time and besides, it lost its new registration number.

In January 2002 DWA purchased the additional four TriStar aircraft from JMC Airlines. One of them will be dismantled for spares while two others are expected to be ferried to Ostend for conversion to freighters, but it is still uncertain which registrations these two aircraft will be receiving. The fourth aircraft has been re-registered as 3C-QRL, also in Equatorial Guinea, a tiny African republic, where most of Victor Bout’s fleet has been registered (see further on). The latter aircraft arrived early March at Maastricht and has then been ferried to Eindhoven to be operated as a flying exhibition for Philips electronic products.

4. At the end of July 1997, Trans Aviation Network Group closed its office in Ostend. Its chief, arms' trafficker and ex-KGB major Victor Anatolevic Bout left his luxurious house for the United Arab Emirates under public pressure (see also further on).

In the same year Air Charter Service (ACS) set up a new company at Ostend Airport. ACS's main office is established in Moscow and its managing director is Sergey Vekhov. [7]In England his organisation has an important nerve centre for Western Europe, under the leadership of a Briton, Christopher Denis Leach. This man started up the new company, Air Charter Service Belgium, together with his Dutch companion, Cornelis Schonk, who was until 1996 one of the members of the Board of Directors of Westland Aviation. The management of the Ostend company was placed in the hands of Nicholas Leach. One of the aircraft operated by Air Charter Service Belgium from Ostend Airport, was an ageing Boeing 707, Liberian-registered as EL-ACP, which, in accordance with European regulations, was allowed to take off until March 2000.

Once in an interview the British pilot Brian Martin let slip that he had in recent years regularly airlifted AK47 assault rifles to Central Africa as well as medical supplies for UNICEF. Brian Martin is known as the co-owner of Occidental Airlines (see further on). Alerted by this interview, a British pressure group started an investigation and identified the Boeing EL-ACP, being used by the Ostend company Air Charter Service Belgium for illicit arms' transportation on the orders of a group of Dutch brokers.

Flight documents show that on November 3, 1999 the aircraft left Ostend empty for Burgas in Bulgaria. It took off at 14.56 hours as flight number ACH252F and arrived the next day in the Zimbabwean capital Harare. The military equipment, probably a Bulgarian surface-to-air missile system, was transferred to an Ilyushin freighter and flown to Kinshasa.

For its very last flight from Ostend in March 2000, EL-ACP was again planning the delivery of weaponry to Harare, intended for the Zimbabwean troops supporting Laurent Kabila against rebel forces backed by Rwanda and Uganda. On March 15 at 13.52 hours the 'plane took off under flight number ACH007 for Bratislava in Slovakia, where it had to collect its items for delivery to Zimbabwe. [8]

Two companies, mentioned below, which were actively involved in arms dealing, disappeared from Ostend in 1997/98. Nevertheless rumours are circulating that the owners of both companies are back in Belgium and recommencing covertly their prior activities. The two companies are:

  Occidental Airlines
  Trans Aviation Network Group

1. In August 1997 a newspaper report indicated that Occidental Airlines, a company based at Ostend Airport was under investigation by the public prosecutor of Bruges. [9] Until 1998 Occidendal Aviation Services NV, as the company was officially registered at the Ostend Commercial Trade Register, had its own large warehouse next to the airport control tower. Although it was pretended that his wife was the owner of the company, a former Belgian airline pilot, Ronald Rossignol, was in fact the owner, together with the British pilot Brian Martin.

Ronald Rossignol is the son of a senior political appointee in the office of P. Van den Boeynants, at the time when the latter was serving as Belgium's Minister of Defence. [10] Ronald Rossignol had, prior to 1980, close connections with Brussels extreme right wing circles. [9] Since 1980 he has been involved in business with the Congo's erstwhile President Mobutu. According to the Belgian newspaper Le Soir, his name appeared on Interpol lists and he was arrested in 1984 in France and accused of fraudulent bankruptcy, to the extent of some BEF 800 million.

Despite the dubious past of R. Rossignol, placed once more under judicial scrutiny, a senior civil servant of the Flemish authorities, Paul Waterlot, responsible for Ostend Airport's promotion and information, eagerly defended R. Rossignol publicly in the press and reaffirmed in the name of the airport's management board, full confidence in the aims of, and the services provided by, Occidental Airlines. [11]

The subject of the judicial investigation was a cargo of nearly forty tonnes of military equipment, to be sent to governmental or rebel forces in Angola. An Avistar Airlines Boeing 707 freighter, Cyprus-registered as 5B-DAZ, was chartered for the trip by Occidental Airlines. Pending a Belgian Customs investigation the consignment, consisting of Dutch Army surplus items, had been impounded in Occidental's warehouse for nine months. The cargo manifest showed an innocuous cargo of used clothing, vehicle parts and vehicles, but the cargo consisted of twenty tonnes of uniforms, an armoured car, multi-band radios and other equipment needed by a fighting force. After being impounded for nine months, the consignment was granted permission to be exported to England and was merely sent across the Channel by truck without arousing further interest.

On 12 May 1998 the Avistar aircraft took off from the civil airport side of RAF Manston in Kent, UK bound for Africa. The flight plan showed that the aircraft was bound for Kano in Nigeria to refuel and then to its reported final destination of Mmabatho in South Africa. After taking off from Kano, the aircraft temporarily disappeared. It never landed on Mmabatho's runway, actually too short for a fully-laden Boeing 707, but it was observed around 04.00 hours on 13 May on the ground at Cabinda, Angola and reappeared some hours later at Lomé in Togo, empty. [12]

According to the UK newspaper The Observer of 14 March 1999, the same aircraft 5B-DAZ, which in 1997 made some 28 flights from Ostend flew, in December 1998, a cargo of weapons and ammunition from Hermes, the former Slovak state-owned arms' manufacturer in Bratislava, to the Sudan, in breach of an EU embargo. The southern civilian population of the Sudan is subjected to violent oppression on religious grounds. The money paid by Hermes for the flight was split between the pilot, the crew and Ronald Rossignol, who acted as broker. While on its way for another delivery to the Sudan and again chartered by Rossignol, the aircraft left Bratislava on 7 February 1999, failed to achieve sufficient speed and ploughed into the mud at the end of the runway. Because of its long list of ongoing malfunctions, it was decided not to repair the aircraft.

Ronald Rossignol succeeded in his efforts to remain outside the grip of Belgian justice, which probably had insufficient legal grounds to take him into custody. The incapacity of local justice illustrates clearly the need for comprehensive international legislation and law enforcement, as well as underlining the ease with which arms' brokers are able to take advantage of gaps within and between national legal systems.

2. Another Ostend-based company, which until 1997 was involved in arms' smuggling, was NV Trans Aviation Network Group (hereafter "TAN Group"). The company was founded in 1995 and had its main office lodged in a totally new building at the end of the motorway from Brussels to Ostend. The parent company of TAN Group, AirCess is based in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, and seems to perform a pivotal function amongst different aircraft companies trafficking in arms. The brain of the organisation is a Russian ex-KGB major, Victor Anatolevic Bout (previously referred to), reported to be now resident in Sharjah and undoubtedly on excellent terms with Russian and Ukrainian mafia and with former KGB-colleagues. As already noted, Victor Bout bought himself a luxurious house in a residential quarter of Ostend. His Belgian partner was a pilot, Ronald Desmet, resident in France near the Swiss border.

Involvement in arms smuggling was first evidenced, when an insider revealed that Ronald Desmet paid the AirCess-pilots USD10,000, in addition to their usual salaries, for each flight carrying arms and munitions. These flights were at that time mostly intended for Afghanistan. When this became publicly known, in July 1997, TAN Group decided to cancel the lease of its rented offices and to move to its Geneva office as well as to the parent company, AirCess, in Sharjah.

Ronald Desmet had formerly flown for the Saudi royal family and had been appointed as chairman of the Liberian Aviation Authority's agency in the United Kingdom. [13] Using these facts as proof of his integrity, he succeeded even in becoming a member of the Ostend Rotary club.

After he left Ostend, V. Bout just went on with his sanctions-busting activities. According to a 1999 report of HRW, he had founded a subsidiary of AirCess based at the South African airport of Pietersburg, called AirPass. From Pietersburg, AirPass, against UN regulations, transported fuel tanks, towing trucks, food and mining equipment to Unita-held areas of Angola. [14]During its activities, AirPass had a direct link with a South African agency, Norse Air Charter, a subsidiary of the British air charter company Air Foyle of Luton. According to The Guardian (5 August 2000), it appears that Air Foyle had, through Norse Air Charter, a two-year business partnership with

Victor Bout.

Shortly after South African authorities suspected him of smuggling arms to the Unita rebel forces, V. Bout moved his operations to another company AirCess Swaziland at Manzini airport. After the Swazi authorities discovered that his company was transporting military equipment, V. Bout decided to move completely from southern Africa and to make Bangui in the Central African Republic his new African stronghold. [14]

On 19 April 2000 an Antonov aircraft AN-8, registered TL-ACM in the Central African Republic, crashed at an airport of the Democratic Republic of Congo, shortly after takeoff. There were no survivors. It was on a return flight with Rwandan army officers and some soldiers on board. The 'plane appeared to belong to Centrafrican Airlines, based at Bangui and to be co-owned by Ronald Desmet, the Belgian partner of Victor Bout. [13] Elsewhere an un-named company of V. Bout has been reported flying in 1999 between the Central African Republic, Kisangani, the Congo and Kigali, Rwanda carrying arms, timber and precious stones. There is indeed also another company in Kigali, called AirCess Rwanda, working with Russian and Ukrainian crew members and focussing its arms' trade on the eastern region of the Congo and Angola. [15]

According to The Guardian, Victor Bout, who repeatedly changes the spelling of his name, is thought to operate a cargo fleet of some 20 ex-Soviet aircraft through several associated cargo companies based in various countries. It is almost impossible to trace all the aircraft linked with V. Bout and his activities, since it is known that he usually leases his freighter aircraft to other operators and so can claim ignorance of the business of sanctions-busting. However, two of Air Foyle's Antonov 124s made several flights to and from Ostend during the two-year partnership of the British company with V. Bout. In January 1999, a 'plane belonging to V. Bout was flown in conjunction with aircraft of Sky Air and the partly Belgian-owned Occidental Airlines, to airlift arms from Bratislava to war-torn but diamond rich Sierra Leone. [16] Four of Bout's Ilyushin aircraft are registered in Equatorial Guinea, a tiny African republic located between Gabon and Cameroon. [17] Two of them were recorded in October 1999 at Ostend Airport's official flight log, making flights to the United Arab Emirates. On a few occasions V. Bout called upon the services of a company, known as Phoenix Air and owned by an Israeli of Russian origin. Two Phoenix Ilyushins were observed in August 1999 in Ostend and the last flight of one of them from Ostend was recorded in the official flight log on 29 January 2000 towards Khartoum in the Sudan.

According to the UN-report of December 2000, Victor Bout "oversees a complex network of over 50 planes, tens of airline companies, cargo charter companies and freight-forwarding companies, many of which are involved in shipping illicit cargo". [18]

Challenged in 1997 to take legal action and to prevent the use of Belgian airports by Victor Bout's companies and other companies suspected or convicted of arms' trafficking, Belgian authorities retorted that such companies were not subject to the existing Belgian jurisdiction and thus admitted that this legal inadequacy indeed enables abusers to take advantage of the gaps within and between the different national legal systems. The result of the investigation, ultimately ordered by the Ministry of External Affairs, has never been published.

However, Ostend Airport is still the host to some dubious companies. There are additional disturbing facts to be anxious about, including the precise role of Ostend Airport in what has been described as "the octopus that is the arms' trade". Additional disturbing facts are:

  According to the UK's Daily Express of 9 June 1996, in April 1996 the British pilot Christopher Barrett-Jolley bought a small BAC 1-11 freighter that was due to be scrapped, and persuaded the British authorities to allow him to fly it to Ostend, supposedly to sell the parts. Once there, however, he put the 'plane on the Liberian register and formed a new company, Balkh Air, to fly arms from Bulgaria to a warlord in northern Afghanistan. Barrett-Jolley was also the pilot, who should have flown the arms-laden Boeing 707, 5B-DAZ, from Bratislava to Khartoum in the Sudan on 7 February 1999. Ironically, he could then not be present to fly the 'plane. So an unlicensed crew boarded the freighter, but unaware of its defects they failed to get the 'plane into the air and, as recounted earlier, it crashed into the mud at the runway's end. Another old Boeing 707 with Afghan registration YA-GAF has stood on Ostend Airport for about three years in a state of increasing dilapidation. First owned by Uganda Airlines, it was afterwards owned by Balkh Air, the company of the enigmatic British pilot.

  On 18 November 2000, a 35 years old Boeing 707 (9G-LAD) owned by Johnsons Air of Ghana, landed at Ostend Airport. Johnsons Air works in league with First International Airlines, a Belgian company based near the town of Tournai and having a PO box at the Ostend airport. The man in charge of First International is an Iranian, Niknafs Javad. He was a pilot who, earlier in his career, flew for David Tokoph's Seagreen. It is not clear if his company still works as a subcontractor for Tokoph. Rumours that First International Airlines is flying arms between Azerbaijan and China have not been confirmed.

  Another ageing Ghana-registered Boeing 707 (9G-EBK) made about ten flights with arms from Plovdiv in Bulgaria to South Yemen. This was at a time when that country was subject to an international arms' embargo. The aircraft was seen in September 1999 at Ostend Airport under a Thai registration, HS-TFS, when it took off for Sharjah, which reportedly became its new home base.

In a report of 1998, HRW states: "Crossing borders with extreme ease, the arms' traffickers have truly multinational networks and pipelines. The Ostend operators, for example, reside in Belgium, collect their cargo from eastern European suppliers and deliver to clients across the world".

Bulgaria and Slovakia are major sources of arms to be transported to war zones. Airports from where the arms' transfer is organised or effected are mainly Burgas and Plovdiv in Bulgaria, Bratislava in Slovakia, a number of Russian airports, Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates and the airport of Ostend. The arms are subsequently delivered to the Sudanese airport of Khartoum, to Sierra Leone, Angola, the Congo or other war zones. All the airports mentioned above are still visited by aircraft from Ostend.

The complexity of arms' trafficking networks is intended to make transactions untraceable. However, it is difficult to agree when this complexity and the lack of concordant European arms' trade legislation are used to justify abusive practices at Ostend Airport. In addition, it is generally known that Ostend Airport is economically not viable. This has caused some people to suggest, that involvement in the arms' trade, and the concurrent financial support of evil-minded organisations and even the acceptance of bribes by officials are tolerated to ensure the survival of a heavily subsidised body.

Whatever blame can be adduced to the Belgian authorities, there seems to be a burgeoning of a serious political will to create an appropriate legal framework and to obtain its approval by the other members of the European Community, in order to put an end to this unacceptable trafficking in arms.

Association for a Clean Ostend

[1] IPIS
[2] IPIS brochure 123, page 43
[3] Belgian newspaper Het Belang van Limburg, 30 November 1996
[4] IPIS brochure 114, page 56
[5] Angola Unravels, IX Arms Trade and Embargo Violations, Sanctions-Busting, 103
[6] Stoking fires with arms in Burundi
[7] ACS
[8] UK newspaper The Guardian, 15 April 2000
[9] Belgian newspaper Het Belang van Limburg, 16 August 1997
[10] IPIS brochure 123, page 45
[11] Belgian newspaper Het Nieuwsblad, 21 August 1997
[12] Fax memorandum, July 1998, British source
[13] La Lettre du Continent N° 334, 29 July 1999 [14] Angola Unravels, IX Arms Trade and Embargo Violations, South-Africa
[15] The Arms Fixers, Chapter 5, Ex-Soviet Business Steps In
[16] London Sunday Times, 10 January 1999
[17] JP Airline Fleets International, 1999-2000
[18] UN-report December 2000, pages 38-39

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Created: 13-6-02 Updated: 14-11-02
Last updated 12.8.2005