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UN: Bulgaria, Ukraine Linked To Illegal Arms Sent To Sierra Leone

  • Robert McMahon

For the second time this year, Bulgaria and Ukraine are being linked to a UN investigation into illegal arms shipments to an African nation. This time the nation is Sierra Leone and the trail of arms is connected to a growing campaign against so-called "conflict diamonds."

United Nations, 1 August 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Bulgaria and Ukraine have been named as major sources of arms reaching rebels in Sierra Leone through a complex network in which diamonds are used to pay for armaments.

The two countries were mentioned on Monday by the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Richard Holbrooke, and several independent experts as the point of origin for major arms shipments reported since 1999.

Bulgaria and Ukraine were not accused of actively promoting the sales of illicit arms. But they are likely to face major scrutiny by the international community as investigations intensify into the sale of what is being termed "conflict diamonds."

Earlier this year, a UN Security Council committee released a report that aimed -- in the report's words -- to "name and shame" violators of a UN arms embargo against rebels in Angola. Now a separate Security Council committee is meeting to discuss ways of enforcing a UN embargo on the trade of diamonds from rebel-held parts of Sierra Leone.

In both cases, diamonds are seen as the prime commodity for allowing rebel groups to maintain effective fighting forces. UN officials want to stop the illicit diamond trade and determine how rebels are able to acquire their weapons.

In his remarks on Monday, Holbrooke told the committee that in Sierra Leone, the rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) have become a more effective fighting force with the new arms they are receiving.

"Governments and insurgents are financing the destruction of Sierra Leone through conflict diamonds, but the weapons they use do not materialize out of thin air. They come from countries outside the conflict region and are aggressively marketed with diamonds as the currency of choice."

Holbrooke mentioned Ukraine and Bulgaria as countries of origin for large air shipments destined for the rebels last summer and winter, both of which first transited other African nations. But Holbrooke also said Ukraine and Bulgaria appear to have taken steps to tighten controls over businesses selling arms.

A London-based expert on Africa and arms trafficking, Patrick Smith, told the committee of several examples of Ukrainian-linked firms involved in arms deals connected to the RUF.

Smith said a Ukrainian businessman runs a Zurich-registered company called "Exotic Tropical Timber Enterprises," which under the guise of logging delivers arms to RUF-held territory. He also cited a report last May by the monitoring group Human Rights Watch that described a shipment in March 1999 of 68 tons of weapons and ammunition delivered by a Ukrainian-registered cargo plane to the west African nation of Burkina Faso.

The report says the weapons were first transferred to Liberia and then on to the Sierra Leonian rebels. It says a Gibraltar-based company bought the weapons in Ukraine on behalf of Burkina Faso, which issued an end-user certificate to the Ukrainian state-owned company Ukrspetsexport.

Ukraine's deputy ambassador to the United Nations, Valeri Kuchynski, told the committee that his government had previously responded to inquiries about that arms shipment. He said it was carried out by authorized companies which received proper certifying documents from the Burkina Faso government. Kuchynski said Ukraine would continue to take seriously its responsibilities as an arms maker.

"As a country involved in the manufacture and marketing of weapons, Ukraine consistently takes steps at national levels to prevent illicit arms transfers from its territory in violation of the decisions of the Security Council ."

But even for well-meaning countries, experts say the complexity of modern-day arms sales means it is difficult to track shipments in many cases. Smith says an average illicit diamond deal can involve more than 30 different parties. He listed seven countries involved in the March 1999 Ukrainian shipment to Burkina Faso.

Another expert on the issue is Brian Wood of Amnesty International. He urged the council to encourage governments to introduce laws which would require more accountability by arms brokers. Among the measures Wood called for were the registering of arms brokers and transport agents who wish to carry arms and for governments to refuse to license individuals who have been involved in illegal trafficking.

"Too often the law-enforcement agencies have to start their investigations afresh every time we're dealing with a new situation, and it's time the states made the arms brokers and the traffickers come to them."

Speakers at yesterday's meeting repeatedly called for more vigilance by governments, in both Eastern Europe and the West, in monitoring arms transfers. The Security Council committee was due to resume hearings on the issue on Tuesday.