The secret empire: Top gunrunner's reach extends across continents, authorities say

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First part: Violence-wracked nations are dumping grounds for world's arsenals
(Second of two parts)

The nondescript cargo plane rolled to a stop at a lonely corner of the airport.

With a cell phone clamped to his ear, a waiting man supervised the loading of scores of brown boxes into the plane's grimy hold. Just 50 minutes later, including time wasted in tracking down the pilots in a nearby bar, the operation was over.

The Russian-built plane, crewed by Ukrainians and newly stuffed with American-made combat medical kits, took off and droned south toward the jungles of the Congo, a country under strict United Nations military embargo.

"Like a bad movie," the bleary-eyed co-pilot from Kiev joked later, while loading up yet another clandestine cargo, this time a Chinese-made anti-aircraft gun, inside Congo. "Like Hollywood, no?"

Running guns in Africa might indeed conjure a B-grade thriller. An appropriate title might be "The Secret Empire of Victor Bout."

Bout — or Butt, Boutov, Budd or Bulakin; he goes by many aliases — is a complete unknown to most of the world. But to Interpol and U.N. investigators, he is the suave mastermind behind the biggest and most devious arms-smuggling network in Africa.

Bout is said to use one of the largest private fleets of propeller aircraft in the world — some 40 to 50 Soviet-era cargo planes — to funnel guns to some of the most brutal guerrillas in the world.

Cold War legacy

Gunrunning isn't a new scourge to Africa, of course. Both the CIA and KGB set up clandestine pipelines to the embattled continent during the Cold War, smuggling planeloads of armaments to the war zones of Angola, Congo, Sudan, Ethiopia, Mozambique and elsewhere.

But a decade after East-West confrontation has cooled, the world's poorest continent once again has become a global nexus for arms trafficking. The only difference is that now the guns are spread through greed, not politics.

Breaching arms embargoes imposed to ease Africa's bloody conflicts, Bout is paid with cash, uncut diamonds, coffee or gold. He has never been caught. Indeed, until earlier this year, few people even knew what he looked like. But that may be about to change.

"Point to any major war in Africa and you'll eventually spot signs of Bout," said Johan Peleman, an arms-trafficking expert with the International Peace Information Service, a human-rights group in Antwerp, Belgium.

Bout is also linked to arms supplied to the Taliban in Afghanistan and to Muslim fundamentalist Abu Sayyaf rebels in the Philippines.

The fact that Bout and others like him have been able to conduct their deals with almost total impunity is one of the roots of violence in modern Africa.

A winding trail

The serpentine story of their operations uncoils from a dreary office park in suburban Dallas to the United Arab Emirates and, ultimately, to the dank bellies of old Soviet-era cargo planes that now dominate the unregulated skies over Africa. At every step along the way, the arms merchants braid long ropes of lies, obfuscation and forged paperwork that usually allow them to escape jail.

Given the United States' long history of arming Africa, surprisingly few among this new breed of free-market gunrunners are Americans. U.S. weaponry is too expensive for most African rebel groups, and U.S. arms-export laws are the strictest in the world.

Instead, like Bout, most are racketeers from Eastern and Western Europe, many of them retired Cold Warriors with links to the military. They now specialize in buying up former East Bloc arsenals at fire-sale prices, and transferring the guns to the most fragile societies in the world.

A parliamentary commission in Ukraine staggered the nation when it revealed that, between 1992 and 1998, a third of the country's weaponry — some $32 billion worth of equipment — had been stolen from army warehouses.

Africa is a favored destination for such hardware, many intelligence sources say. Researchers for Oxfam, the humanitarian group, put the number of illegally obtained weapons in Africa at 50 million, half of all the firearms on the continent.

Whatever the real figures, the end result has been catastrophic.

The United Nations called an unprecedented summit in July to try to curb an estimated $1 billion in illegal small-arms deals made every year.

By all accounts, that conference was a washout. The U.S. delegation opposed any accord that limited its ability to arm friendly rebels. Sensitive to the U.S. gun lobby, Washington's diplomats also blocked any language that impinged on Americans' right to bear arms.

In truth, few governments closely regulate their small-arms trade. Faking legal arms-sales documents, especially key purchase orders called "end user certificates," is ridiculously easy, since none of the required paperwork is standardized.

"Gunrunning is probably the safest criminal activity in the world," said Lisa Misol, an arms expert with Human Rights Watch. "That's what is so depressing about it. Crime actually pays."

The best of the worst

The enigmatic Victor Bout is the most powerful accused trafficker of them all.

Brilliant, rich and supremely elusive, he is said to be an avid environmentalist. Former colleagues describe how he once tried to persuade the hard-eyed Congolese rebels he busily arms to set up game reserves in that nation's lawless jungles.

Of his personal life, little else is known. Approached repeatedly through intermediaries, Bout, who travels under five different passports, refused all requests for interviews.

"If we want real peace in Africa, Victor is the one person who could make it happen," said Richard Chichakli, one of Bout's far-flung associates in Richardson, Texas. "Victor is a genius — we're talking an IQ of 170. He knows the African people. He knows the languages — French, Portuguese, Xhosa, Zulu."

Chichakli, an accountant for Bout and a former U.S. Army intelligence officer, works in a glassy bank building in the strip-mall suburbs of Dallas.

"If Victor's such a monster, why don't they haul him in?" Chichakli demanded.

That may finally come to pass. Belgium last week issued an international warrant for Bout's arrest. Experts say it represents a major blow against Bout's sprawling enterprises.

The warrant charges him with money laundering but likely will be expanded to include arms dealing. The arrest order stems from evidence supplied by a key Bout associate who was detained in Belgium on similar charges Feb. 7.

U.S. and European officials said Sanjivan Ruprah was arrested on charges of criminal association and using a false passport.

U.S. officials said that since the arrest, Ruprah has divulged more information about Bout's suspected arms pipeline to the Taliban and al-Qaida.

For the past three years, U.S. intelligence agencies have covertly been trying to thwart Bout's sprawling arms empire, whose operation is based in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), according to U.S. and European officials.

Bout's network is unique, U.S., British and U.N. investigators said, because of its ability to deliver sophisticated weapons systems virtually anywhere in the world.

While Bout has long been suspected of supplying weapons to the Taliban, U.S. and European officials said intelligence gathered in recent months in Afghanistan and elsewhere has suggested he was flying weapons into Afghanistan in the months before the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.

U.N. and U.S. officials said Bout cut a deal with the Taliban in 1996 in UAE, one of only three countries in the world that recognized the regime.

The deal called for Air Cess, Bout's principal business, to supply and service Afghanistan's Ariana Airways and the Afghan air force, both of which used Soviet-era aircraft. Another company that Bout had an interest in, Flying Dolphin, provided charter flights from Dubai to Afghanistan, the sources said, and soon there were several flights a week from Dubai to the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar.

U.N. investigators say they now believe many of those flights were loaded with weapons. When U.N. sanctions shut down Ariana Airways in November 2000, Flying Dolphin obtained a U.N. waiver, for reasons that are not clear, and continued flying the Dubai-Kandahar route until being shut down by the United Nations in January 2001.

"Bout undoubtedly did supply al-Qaida and the Taliban with arms,'' Peter Hain, Britain's minister of European affairs and lead investigator into Bout's global arms trade, told the Associated Press on Feb. 19.

Playing both sides?

A 1998 Belgian intelligence report on Bout's activities says he made $50 million in Afghanistan, selling heavy weapons to the Taliban. However, investigators said they had doubts Bout had earned that much money from the Taliban and al-Qaida, in part because Bout also supplied weapons to anti-Taliban leaders, some of whom were his close friends.

Nonetheless, the United States launched an effort to disrupt Bout's arms trading, trying to freeze his assets and pressuring other nations, especially the UAE, to expel him. U.S. officials said they were limited in what they could do because they believed Bout had violated no U.S. laws. Air Cess, based in Miami, was dissolved Sept. 19, according to public records.

U.S. and U.N. investigators say they think Bout has also run guns for the radical Muslim Abu Sayyaf guerrilla movement in the Philippines and has flown weapons for Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

Bout specialized in breaking arms embargoes around the world, according to four separate U.N. Security Council reports on weapons trafficking that were issued between December 2000 and last month. He traffics almost exclusively in weapons bought in the former Soviet bloc, chiefly Bulgaria and Romania, according to these officials.

"There are a lot of people who can deliver arms to Africa or Afghanistan, but you can count on one hand those who can deliver major weapons systems rapidly,'' said Lee Wolosky, a former National Security Council official who led an interagency effort to shut down Bout's operations during the last two years of the Clinton administration. "Victor Bout is at the top of that list.''

Diamonds and arms

Ruprah was especially valuable to Bout, U.S. and U.N. investigators said, because he was involved with the illicit diamond trade in West Africa and arranged for Bout to be paid for his weapons deliveries with diamonds from Sierra Leone, Congo and Angola.

As reported earlier, al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations have used an underground network that stretches across Africa to trade in diamonds, weapons and other valuable commodities.

In an unprecedented admission that its embargoes in Africa were failing, the United Nations launched a "name and shame" campaign in March 2000 against the smugglers who swapped diamonds for guns on the continent.

Bout starred in all the U.N. reports, which went as far as publishing his aircraft-registration numbers and even his home-telephone number.

Investigators showed how Bout, 35, a stocky native of Tajikistan and a graduate of Moscow's prestigious Military Institute of Foreign Languages, left the Russian air force in the early 1990s and began assembling a squadron of gunrunning planes at Sharjah, an airport of convenience in the United Arab Emirates.

Bout was associated early on with a circle of European traffickers who were spiriting guns to the genocidal Hutu militias responsible for killing 800,000 Tutsis in Rwanda, human-rights groups and media reports say. By 1998, he had graduated to ferrying at least 37 Bulgarian arms shipments to the unsavory UNITA rebels of Angola. Since then, the United Nations alleges, ragged insurgents in Sierra Leone and the Congo have since engaged his services.

Legitimate interests

Experts at the United Nations also uncovered a global web of legitimate businesses operated by Bout and his family.

"He doesn't come off as a crook," said Deirdre Ward, an air-freight executive who did business with Bout in South Africa until authorities began looking into his operations there in 1998. "He could charm you in seven or eight languages."

Since Bout's activities have begun surfacing in public, his air armada has shifted bases rapidly from South Africa to the Central African Republic to tiny Equatorial Guinea to Rwanda, U.N. reports say.

So many Russian-speaking pilots now lodge at his mansion in Kigali, the Rwandan capital, that locals jokingly have dubbed his compound "The Kremlin."

Bout also keeps a luxurious, walled villa in the United Arab Emirates, where he continues to maintain an office for Air Cess.

"Africa boils and these chaps feed the fires," lamented Maj. Mohammed Yerima, a spokesman for the U.N. peacekeeping force in Sierra Leone, where Bout has been accused of running guns.

"How do you get rid of them? It's like swatting at flies."

One idea proposed by human-rights groups is to standardize and tighten the laws for small-arms purchases globally. Sanctions also must be slapped on nations willingly used as conduits for weapons smuggling, they say.

But until then, piratical scenes like those in the jungles of Congo, Bout's latest stomping ground, will continue to play out.