Shortly before midnight on 17 December 1995, Indian villagers looking up into the night sky above the state of West Bengal were astonished to see wooden crates floating down towards them - crates containing enough arms and ammunition to start a small war.
Who were the arms intended for? What were the recipients expecting to do with them? These are questions that have never been satisfactorily answered. The man said to be behind the arms drop remains at large. But one of the other men in the plane, who has said frankly that the drop "was clearly on behalf of some terrorist group", will shortly regain his liberty.
He is Peter Bleach, a British arms dealer, and yesterday the Indian government announced that he is to be released. Sentenced to life imprisonment for conspiring to wage war on India, he is to be freed on humanitarian grounds.
Yet many of the questions raised by one of the most baffling international escapades of recent years remain unanswered.
Lal Krishna Advani, India's Deputy Prime Minister, announced Bleach's impending release after talks with David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, in Delhi. "There is an outstanding matter pending between India and Britain," Mr Advani told reporters after the meeting. "There has been a long-standing demand that Peter Bleach be released... It should be possible to release him soon."
The Government has been lobbying for his release for years. Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, had pressed Bleach's case in Delhi. Tony Blair also raised the matter with Mr Advani, who is also India's Interior Minister, when the latter visited London last June. Yesterday's announcement was greeted with joy by Bleach's ailing mother Oceana, who said at her home in Scarborough: "I am very thrilled. That was my biggest wish for this year, that my son would be coming back."
Had it not been for the strong-arm diplomacy of Vladimir Putin, the Russian President, Bleach would probably be facing many more years in jail. Two and a half years ago, Russian pressure led to the release of five Latvians who were tried and convicted with Bleach of the same crime, and given identical sentences.
It was four years ago that Bleach was sentenced to life imprisonment by a Calcutta court. He had been arrested in December 1995 after a private plane in which he was travelling dropped arms, including 300 AK-47 rifles, 15 Makarov pistols, two sniper rifles, 10 rocket launchers, 100 anti-tank grenades and 24,000 rounds of ammunition, on a remote part of West Bengal, due west of Calcutta.
Five Latvians were crewing the plane and they were arrested, tried and convicted with Bleach. But historically Russia has been one of India's strongest allies. Diplomatic pressure is believed to have resulted in the case moving at unusual speed through the normally sluggish waters of the Indian judicial system; and heavy arm-twisting by President Putin led to the release of the Latvians just five months after they were sentenced.
Yesterday Mr Blunkett made it clear that the Latvians' early release was an important factor in persuading the Government to urge the Indians to let Bleach go. He said: "I would not have pressed the case for Peter Bleach had those co-defendants, who had been found guilty with him and sentenced to jail with him, not already been released some time ago.
"Quality and fairness of justice involves treating one person equally with another in relation to the crime they have committed. On those grounds it would be fair to treat Peter Bleach and his co-defendants in exactly the same way."
That consideration, plus the fact that Bleach was now "seriously ill" and the fact of "him having an ageing mother", were "a trio ... of very good reasons", Mr Blunkett added, "to ask that he should be released on humanitarian grounds".
The case of Bleach and the Indian arms drop is a baffling one. The tall, elegant figure in the Ray-Ban shades and the navy blazer, who represented himself in court in Calcutta with wit and good humour, looked like everybody's idea of a suave double agent. Even the name sounds as if it belongs in the pages of popular fiction: plain Peter Bleach most of the time, Peter James Gifran von Kalkstein Bleach in full. But whether Bleach's tale belongs more naturally in the realms of John Le Carré or Walter Mitty remains unclear.
Bleach has in fact served in military intelligence, though not at the level that his immaculate appearance in the Calcutta court room suggested: he was a lance-corporal in the Army Intelligence Corps. After his discharge from the army he moved to Zimbabwe where he worked in the prison service, then returned to the UK and worked as a private bodyguard.
It seems clear that he felt himself destined for higher things, and at his farmhouse in North Yorkshire, as well as raising Dobermann pinschers as guard dogs, he set up a firm called Aeroserve UK to deal in arms.
He had yet to achieve very much in the trade: a British military intelligence source described him as "an international bits-and-bobs man". So when one day in 1994 Bleach received a telephone call from a mysterious Dane known as Kim Davey, asking for his help with an arms shipment, Bleach was amenable.
The role required of him was to arrange the lease of the aeroplane with which the arms shipment would be delivered. But after meeting "Kim Davey" - who is known by at least two other names - in Copenhagen, Bleach said he quickly realised that this was not a legitimate transaction but "clearly on behalf of some terrorist group". So, on returning to Britain, he contacted the export services organisation of the Ministry of Defence, told them of the terrorist plot and asked for their advice. Military intelligence sources said that they advised Bleach to have nothing to do with it.
But Bleach himself maintains that they told him to stick with it. His understanding, he claimed, was that he was now participating in a sting operation. "At every stage of this," he said after his arrest, "I expected some big police action to swing into operation. I expected... we would all be arrested, and I would be let out the back door of the police station."
In the light of what actually came to pass, Mr Bleach was either betrayed by the Government (his version) or became the victim of his own vivid imagination.
Helping the Government pull off a sting: that is one explanation Bleach has given for why he came to find himself high above West Bengal in an aeroplane stashed with arms bound for an anti-government organisation.
Another he has given is that once he had got involved up to a certain point, "Kim Davey" would not let him withdraw. He found himself trapped. "I went to Bulgaria as the agent for the sale of the plane," he said. "I had nothing to do with the sale of the arms. But once I was there, "Kim Davey" made it clear he was not letting me out of his sight until the job was done."
It was on 17 December 1995 that the plane left Europe bound for India with its cargo of arms. It made a stop at Varanasi, then took off again. At about midnight the plane's hatches opened and the crates of arms floated down over the village of Purulia, the headquarters of an esoteric Hindu sect called Ananda Marg, which has long been in dispute with the government of West Bengal state.
Whether that ostensibly religious organisation was the intended final destination of the arms, and if so, what they wanted them for, are two more of the questions that Bleach's trial failed to clear up. But there appears to be a connection of sorts: one of "Kim Davey's" other aliases is said to be Dada Nirvananda, the name by which he was known during his years as an acolyte of the sect.
Although villagers at Purulia reported the arms drop to the police, Bleach's plane was allowed to fly on unimpeded to Phuket in Thailand, another aspect of the case that has caused feverish speculation. It returned to India four days later, when it was admitted to Indian air space but forced to land at Bombay.
That was when, according to Bleach's optimistic scenario, the sting should have occurred and he in his innocence should have been allowed to go free. But the scenario went horribly wrong. After the plane was ordered to land, a big police action did indeed swing into action - but the man who managed to get away was not Bleach but "Kim Davey".
Bleach and the Latvians, the patsies by Bleach's account, were arrested and charged with waging war on India, an offence punishable by hanging.
For the first four years of his incarceration, Bleach lived in the shadow of the gallows. At the conclusion of the trial all six were convicted of the lesser crime of conspiring to wage war.
Since being sentenced Bleach has twice unsuccessfully appealed to India's President for pardon, and his mother also made an emotional appeal for his release. Soon he will be on his way home to Yorkshire, free at last from a gruelling ordeal.
But what exactly he and the enigmatic "Kim Davey" imagined they were playing at over the skies of West Bengal eight years ago has yet to be fully explained.Reuse content