Global Policy Forum

Air Transport a Little-Known Key


By Robert Holloway

Agence France Presse
March 27, 2001

Delegates to a UN conference on weapons trafficking were urged Monday to place tighter controls on air transportation as a means to limit arms smuggling. "If you want to move arms, you have to use aircraft; and if you want to stop illegal arms dealing, you must stop the air transport," pilot Mike Selwood told a news conference.

The briefing was held as the third and final preparatory session of the Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in all its Aspects entered its final week. The conference, which takes place here from July 9 to July 20, will confront a trade that is estimated to have claimed five million lives since 1990, many of them in wars involving child soldiers in Africa.

"The transport of weapons and ammunition by air is always an operation carried out with discretion, even when the transfer is a legal one from one sovereign government to another and no international embargoes are being breached," said Brian Johnson-Thomas, a campaigning journalist. "In the case of illicit arms transfers, the degree of deceit which may be involved is great, but so of course are the rewards."

Johnson-Thomas showed part of an interview recorded last year with pilot Brian "Sport" Martin, who said he and two colleagues were offered 100,000 dollars per trip to make illegal flights for UNITA rebels in Angola.

United Nations sanctions outlaw the sale of arms or petroleum products to UNITA. But Martin said he was asked to make 30 flights transporting diesel fuel from the Rwandan capital, Kigali, to Alpha One, a clandestine UNITA airbase. He said he refused because "it's not an easy place to get into at night, and they insisted on doing it at night."

There were no navigation aids at Alpha One, and he would have had to land his plane using only a global positioning system, he said. Martin said that on other occasions in the Congo, he had landed a Boeing 707 on a very narrow, 1,800-yard runway with a landing weight of 14 tonnes. "Whatever else one may think of them, the crews involved in this clandestine world are consummate aviators who are able to fly in conditions beyond normal limits," Johnson-Thomas said.

Arms smuggling was "done by a comparatively small number of individuals, most of whom are known, but who have a kind of fools' charter to continue," he went on. He said the rules were commonly flouted in two ways, the simplest being to divert a plane from the destination shown on its approved flight plan.

Selwood, who has clocked up 7,000 hours over Africa, said there was no continuous radar coverage over much of the continent. But, he said, the kind of aircraft used in shady arms deals would have to refuel between Europe and Africa and could be subject to controls.

The second way of escaping detection was to use phony cargo manifests, Johnson-Thomas said. "End-user certificates are not difficult to come by," he said, holding up a blank certificate which he jokingly offered to photocopy and sell at 10 dollars a time.

Selwood called for tighter enforcement of the "validation" of crew licences from one country to another. "There is no possibility that I could operate an air flight out of the United Kingdom without permission," he said. But "there is a strong tendency for the civil aviation authorities not to act. If anything happens that involves a British-registered crew in another country, it becomes someone else's problem." If a pilot knew he might lose his licence in his home country for a breach of UN sanctions abroad, he would think twice about it, Selwood said.

The British-American Security Information Council said the UN conference should contain a commitment to negotiate an international convention on the problems of arms brokering and transportation by 2003. If states banned unlicensed brokering and transport of arms, unscrupulous agents would find it much harder to conduct their business, the group said. "If all states adopt and enforce such controls, these agents will find it impossible to continue," it said in a document prepared for the conference.

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