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Yugoslavia: Arms Expert Traces Belgrade-to-Liberia Arms Trafficking

  • Robert McMahon

At a time when Yugoslav authorities are dealing with revelations about illicit arms shipments to Iraq, a UN expert panel has reported a separate series of illegal arms transfers from Belgrade to Liberia. Panel member Johan Peleman, one of the world's leading authorities on illegal arms dealing, talked to RFE/RL about the panel's findings and the difficulty in stopping the flow of weapons from Eastern Europe to Africa's embargoed war zones.

United Nations, 1 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- UN experts have detailed another series of illegal arms shipments from Eastern Europe to an African nation at war, this time tracing the source to Yugoslavia.

The findings of the UN experts, made public this week, say that a double document trail was used by arms dealers to deliver more than 200 tons of Yugoslav army stocks to the Liberian government from June through August. Liberia is under UN Security Council sanctions for contributing to unrest in West Africa.

Yugoslav authorities have not been accused of authorizing the transfers. But the UN panel of experts says arms dealers took advantage of Belgrade's weak oversight mechanisms to carry out their shipments.

Johan Peleman is the arms expert on the four-member panel and one of the world's top authorities on illicit weapons trading. He told RFE/RL in an interview this week that two private Yugoslav firms appear to have been involved in a scheme in which false documents were used to carry out six air shipments of Yugoslav arms from Belgrade to Monrovia.

One set of documents showed military equipment was being sold to Nigeria's Defense Ministry. Another set of documents was prepared to convince other authorities that the aircraft were shipping mining equipment to Liberia.

The Yugoslav firm Interjug AS was the freight-forwarding agent that prepared the paperwork for the flights from Yugoslavia. Peleman said Interjug refused to provide any information to the panel, and its involvement in the details of the flights placed it under suspicion. "To us, it seems inexplicable that Interjug could not provide us with any documentation on these flights, saying that they had given all the documentation to the pilots and the crew and had kept no copies of it, plus the fact that Interjug would not have known that the real destination for these shipments was Liberia instead of Lagos [Nigeria]."

The other Yugoslav company involved was Belgrade-based Temex, which supplied the arms.

The UN panel spoke with the director of Temex, Slobodan Tezic, who insisted his company was involved in a legal transaction between the Yugoslav supplier -- the army -- and the Nigerian Defense Ministry.

But Temex refused to provide the panel with documents showing who had paid for the weapons, which Peleman says could have proven the company's innocence.

The panel's report says Yugoslav authorities had followed the normal procedure for the export of military equipment prior to the shipments this summer. It also notes that Yugoslav officials made an effort to get extra confirmation over whether Nigeria was the end-user of the military supplies as claimed. But arms brokers were able to provide falsified end-user certificates showing Nigeria was the customer.

Peleman said countries like Yugoslavia need to exercise more vigorous oversight on arms shipments: "We think it's a little weak under internationally accepted standards to just go for a standard paper procedure -- end-user certificate -- but as such we don't see it as involvement in illicit arms trafficking as it were. We're not saying that Yugoslav authorities were aware of the diversions."

Peleman also said authorities in Belgrade need to be more aware of arms moratoriums as well as embargoes. Yugoslav officials, the panel found, did not know of the existence of the moratorium on small arms declared by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which includes Nigeria. "We were surprised to see that [neither] Yugoslav authorities nor the company [Temex] seemed to know that there was any such thing as a moratorium and that a client state, under terms of the moratorium, has to report to the ECOWAS secretariat to ask for a waiver to import arms."

Peleman said Yugoslav authorities should follow the example of Bulgaria, which toughened arms-export procedures after being named by a different UN panel two years ago as a source of illegal arms sent to Angola.

Since then, UN panels monitoring arms embargoes in Angola, Sierra Leone, and Liberia have repeatedly found an Eastern European source for many of the small weapons trafficked to the continent.

Many of the aircraft and crew of planes transporting arms to Africa originate in former Soviet countries, where there is a large pool of aging aircraft that can be operated more cheaply than Western-produced planes.

The plane used in four of the illicit Liberian shipments this summer was an Ilyushin-76, based in Ivano-Frankivsk in Ukraine, and its crew was Ukrainian. A Ukrainian company, Aerotech, issued flight-authorization requests on the same day in June for Ilyushin flights to both Monrovia and Lagos, Peleman said. Peleman said the panel asked Aerotech for further information on the flights but was told no documents could be provided.

Ukrainian brokers have been linked in previous UN reports to arms trafficking to Africa, but Peleman says there was not enough evidence to prove such a link in the latest report. And he said there was no sign of wrongdoing by Ukrainian authorities: "We're not suggesting that the arms originated in Ukraine or that Ukraine would have been involved in authorizations or licenses, not even for the aircraft, because it started in Belgrade. It would be too far-fetched to say there is Ukrainian involvement here. We just found a private company. The fact that the crew was Ukrainian is the Ukrainian angle."

But he said countries throughout the region continue to turn up in reports looking into arms trafficking into Africa. The huge arms stockpiles, poor economic conditions, and loose controls in many former communist states are one part of the problem, Peleman says. This combines with the inability of most African states to monitor airspace and screen brokers, creating ideal conditions for traffickers, he said. "Many of these states in Central and Eastern Europe have indeed large excess stocks that can generate foreign currency for them -- badly needed foreign currency, in many cases. And I assume that, as most arms-exporting countries, they have hundreds if not thousands of arms-exports authorizations to deal with every year plus there is a real proliferation, this is both east and west, of private players in the market-brokering companies, brokers whose sole interest is profit."

The UN panel's report recommends that the arms embargo on Liberia should continue and its urges the United Nations to set up a working group to draft a standardized end-user certificate showing the actual recipient of weapons and ammunition. The report has been discussed for two weeks by a UN Security Council committee and will be presented to the full council in mid-November.

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