For Peter Bleach, the scariest moment came when the ancient Russian Antonov cargo aeroplane he had procured took off from Varanasi airport in northern India, laden with arms and ammunition. He fully expected to be dead within minutes.
The date was 17 December 1995. Three months earlier, the freelance Yorkshire-based arms dealer had been approached about providing a Danish customer with a large quantity of arms and ammunition. When he discovered that they were wanted not by a state army but by a terrorist group, he informed the British authorities – who told him to carry on.
He did so, believing that he was playing a role in an anti-terrorist sting operation: he expected that, before the arms could be delivered, the Indian authorities would bring the operation grinding to a halt, and he would be rescued.
Instead, the mission had proceeded without a serious hitch. Now the arms were about to be dropped to the chosen target – whoever that might be.
As the Russian plane lumbered up into the night sky, he was pretty sure his end was close. "When we took off from Varanasi, I really started to worry," he says. "I thought the Indians had decided just to shoot the plane down and have done with it. At any minute I expected there to be a flash and that's the end. I really did think I was off to meet my maker."
Instead, nothing happened. After 20 minutes the plane peeled away from the "motorway in the sky", the major air route that links Varanasi with Calcutta and points east, and headed for the town of Purulia in West Bengal. It dropped through the night sky to what the crew believed was the right altitude, then they opened the rear-hatch and shoved the loaded pallets towards it. As the arms and munitions plummeted down and the parachutes bellied out, Bleach heaved a huge sigh. "It was the biggest relief of my life."
His nightmare, it appeared, was over. But instead, it was about to begin. Within 10 days, he and the crew of the plane were bound by the arms and legs, flown to Calcutta, locked in the city's vile jail, and charged with the most serious offence in the Indian statute book: waging war on the Indian state, which carries the death penalty.
The Purulia arms drop, as the operation became known, was the subject of a two-year trial at the end of which Bleach and the crew, five ethnic Russians from Latvia, were convicted and jailed for life. Years later, all six were freed after pressure from the Russian and British governments.
The case was closed with the mystery of who the arms were intended for still intact: the man at the heart of the operation, a Dane who went by the name of Kim Davy and who had been spirited away before Bleach and the crew were arrested, has been living in Copenhagen all these years. Now the Indian government is fighting to extradite him to India to stand trial. If they succeed – we will find out in the next few weeks – one of the most puzzling mysteries of recent times may finally be solved.
Or not: both "Davy" himself and Peter Bleach fear that the Dane may be killed before he has a chance to speak. Because the operation, news of which broke when the arms landed not on a remote hillside but in and around a village, could not have gone ahead without the consent of very highly placed figures in the Indian government.
Peter Bleach's professional life was a useful preparation for the situation he found himself in the thick of in the skies above Varanasi. He had served in British military intelligence in Belfast during the Troubles, fought for Ian Smith's white supremacists in Rhodesia and worked as a private eye in Britain before moving into the arms trade.
Now 59 and still sleek and erect despite eight years in Calcutta's jail, where he contracted TB and at one point nearly starved, he seems a throwback to an earlier sort of Englishman: James Bond, Raffles, John Le Carré's Honourable Schoolboy. Kipling would have known the type. He worked as a private eye for years, but when spying went sour on him after one sleazy divorce case too many, he drifted into the arms trade. He specialised in small-scale orders – a couple of Polish helicopters or 50,000 yards of camouflage material – for governments in the developing world.
So when a German business acquaintance rang him one day and told him about a Danish contact who was looking for a supply of AK-47s, it promised to be nothing out of the ordinary. Bleach flew to Copenhagen to meet him – "You do want to get an eyeball of the people you are doing business with" – and present his quote for the guns.
But he was in for a surprise. Kalashnikovs are used by state armies all over the developing world, and the quote he had prepared covered their delivery to the bonded warehouse in Calcutta. But his customer, who introduced himself as Kim Davy, said he wanted the delivery made not to Calcutta, but to a remote spot near the western border of West Bengal called Purulia. He produced a map of India and put his finger on it.
For Bleach, there could be only one explanation: the arms were required not by a government but by a terrorist group. "I was a bit taken aback," he says. He pointed out that it was illegal, and would therefore cost a lot more. "So he said, 'Can you give us a fresh quote?' and I said, 'It'll take a lot of doing, I'll need some time to do it.'
"We shook hands on that, and I was driven back to the airport and flew home, and phoned the Ministry of Defence as soon as I touched down. And that," he adds with a bitter laugh, "is where it all went wrong."
Informing the authorities of what you are up to is second nature for a British arms dealer, Bleach explains. "In those days there was an organisation called the Defence Export Services Organisation (Deso), which had offices in London's Soho Square, a division of the Ministry of Defence." In a business as sensitive as arms dealing, Deso's supervision "was a good system: you fed everything back to them, they weren't bothered about what you were doing so long as it wasn't exactly illegal, and they got a very good picture of who was buying what and what was going on around the world. So my only objective was to go back to the UK and telephone Deso and ask them what they wanted me to do – simple as that. Guess what? The British Government does occasionally support terrorist groups and things like that.
"I gave them all the information and they said carry on, don't let on that you've told us anything. Play them along until we tell you otherwise.
"They came back to me some time later and said, 'We've had discussions with the Indian government and they want the deal to go ahead, but we don't want you to sell the guns.'" That was because letters of credit would be traceable to Bleach, "and then they would have to let on that it was me who had told them about the deal, and that would compromise my situation." Instead, it was arranged that Bleach would find Davy a different source for the guns, while he himself would arrange to buy the aircraft to deliver them.
"Special Branch told me that the only way for the group behind the arms drop to be identified was for the guns to be delivered, and then [the Indian authorities would] arrest everybody when the delivery happened."
Thus Bleach found himself caught up in an international sting operation, with four tons of weapons as the bait. "As I was going down the spider's leg to get on the plane at Gatwick, right at the door of the aircraft there was a guy in a suit who said, 'How long will you be away, Mr Bleach?' I said, 'Not very long at all.' 'Have a good flight,' he said."
It was December 1995 and Bleach expected to be back within days – in time for a North Yorks Christmas. His plan was to obtain an airworthiness certificate for the decrepit Russian plane sitting on the airfield at Burgas, Bulgaria, stuffed with 77 cases of weapons labelled "Technical Equipment", bid his customer a fond goodbye then come home. But Davy refused to let him go.
"He said, 'You know too much, I want you to come with me. I don't want you out of my sight until this is done and dusted. You won't be out of pocket, I'll give you first-class accommodation, you can fly back by whatever route you like, it will be worth your while, but I don't want you to leave.'"
Again, Bleach felt cornered. But he was confident that the British authorities would be keeping a protective eye on him. "I knew that the Brits knew exactly where I was, they were tracking my route, and if I didn't use my return ticket in a day or so they would be aware of the fact – so I assumed that everything was all right."
After nearly crashing at Isfahan in Iran, they landed at Karachi in Pakistan. The plane was on the Tarmac for days, but nobody at the airport showed any interest in its contents. To Bleach's dismay, an Indian friend of Davy showed up with a consignment of cargo parachutes – Bleach had been comforting himself with the thought that the lack of parachutes would prevent the drop from going ahead. The next stop was to be the holy Hindu city of Varanasi.
"We took off from Karachi," Bleach recalls, "and the crew had no idea that they were carrying arms and ammunition, none whatsoever. But you've got to tell them some time! As soon as we were clear of Karachi airspace, Davy and his Indian friend started breaking open the boxes so they could load the guns on to pallets, revealing rack after rack of gleaming, brand-new, high quality Bulgarian AK47s.
"One of the Latvians was making tea at the time in the little kitchenette – his eyes just got wider and wider and his jaw dropped and he turned round and went to talk to the pilot. The pilot came to look, then Davy went forward to the cockpit. I've no idea what passed between them but somehow, with a combination of threats and extra money, he succeeded in pacifying them."
They landed at Varanasi to refuel and feverishly continued to break open boxes and attach the contents to pallets. Bleach joined in, though expecting at any moment that Indian special forces would storm the plane and arrest them all. To defend himself in case of a firefight, he quietly pocketed one of the Makarov pistols.
Then the plane took off, and Bleach waited for it to be blasted out of the sky.
Crammed into the Antonov's rugged interior with Bleach was the 24-year-old Dane he knew as Kim Davy. Like Bleach, he seems to have stepped from the pages of a novel.
Davy, whose real name is Niels Holck, was short and skinny, and his bony face, high cheekbones and Marty Feldman eyes gave him an anxious, intellectual look, enhanced by oversize spectacles. His voice was mild and educated, k and what had brought him to this spot high above the Ganges flood plain were, if he was to be believed, unimpeachable Scandinavian motives: the urge to help some of the poorest people in the Indian subcontinent to help themselves.
Ananda Nagar, the utopian community far below them in West Bengal, "an ideal community" as it describes itself, "completely self-sufficient and progressing harmoniously in all spheres of life", was in deep trouble: it had been under murderous assault by thugs loyal to the communist government of West Bengal, which resented the community's independence. And that, according to Holck, is why he had decided to help them, by giving them the means to defend themselves. The flight had been financed by a lucrative gold-smuggling business he had been conducting from China.
It was not a matter of showering the commune with a few pea-shooters. The consignment consisted of 77 cases of Kalashnikov rifles, Makarov pistols, sniper rifles, anti-tank grenades, RPG rocket-launchers, anti-personnel mines, night-vision binoculars and 25,000 rounds of rifle ammunition: enough kit to start a small war, far more than a supposedly religious group would require for self-defence.
The drop might never have come to public attention if it had landed on the intended spot. But the pallet-loading took so long that the plane finally left Varanasi long after dark, when the landmarks, three hills close together, were no longer visible. And the pilot misunderstood his instructions, unleashing his load not at 300ft but 300 metres, with the result that the parachutes came swirling down in the middle of a village, to the consternation of the inhabitants.
The plane went on to land in the Thai resort of Phuket. It was only when he turned on the television in his hotel room the next morning that Bleach discovered that their consignment had landed miles off target. It was the lead story on BBC World News. "These villagers in India had found the area around their village carpeted with AK-47s," he remembers. Bleach found himself up to his neck in a major terrorist incident gone wildly awry. "I sat in my Phuket hotel room, thinking, 'What the hell do I do now?'"
Holck proposed sending Bleach and the crew back home directly from Phuket without touching India. But Bleach, who clung to the idea that he was still under the protection of the British authorities, insisted that they complete their flight plan by returning to Europe in their Antonov via India. But Bleach was, in fact, under the protection of nobody, and all but the Dane were arrested at Bombay airport.
For many years it looked as though Davy was the only lucky man in the Purulia saga, having skipped out of Bombay and back to Europe before he could be identified. Today, however, the boot is on the other foot. "I may have had an unpleasant few years," says Bleach, "but these days I can go anywhere I want in the world, with the possible exception of India. But Niels Holck dare not leave Denmark."
Holck was arrested last April when the Danish government reversed its previous stance and agreed to his extradition. A local court has upheld his appeal against the order, but the government is challenging that ruling in an appeal in the high court scheduled for May.
Now aged 49, Holck first became famous in Denmark after committing a series of bank robberies – one of them in the bank where his mother worked – when barely out of his teens. After escaping from a courtroom without his shoes he became known as the "barefoot robber".
Despite this unpromising start, Holck, a vegetarian since the age of 17, paints a glowing picture of himself as a humanitarian, fired by anger at state brutality inflicted on some of the poorest people in India. "In the early 1990s I was involved in a comprehensive development project in Purulia run by Ananda Marga," he tells me by Skype from Copenhagen.
Translated as "Path of Bliss", Ananda Marga, the group behind the Ananda Nagar community, was founded in Bihar in 1955 by Prabhat Ranjan Sarkar, an Indian Railways accountant and teacher of Tantric yoga. It describes itself as an organisation of sannyasin – monks and nuns – who dedicate their lives to meditation and social service. Like other modern Indian spiritual schools, it has spread across the world, with communities from Utah to Copenhagen. What marks it out from the rest is its readiness to fight back against state power.
"I spent 13 years working as a volunteer with different eco-sustainable projects around the world," says Holck. "I was inspired by Ananda Marga's work in Ananda Nagar, among some of the poorest of the poor in India, where they were building a community with sustainable energy resources, promoting cottage industries with the help of micro-loans and so on. It was a big inspiration for me."
But a bitter feud was under way between the Ananda Nagar community and the communist state government of West Bengal, which sent its thugs to level the hospital, attack the monks and nuns, and destroy the community's agricultural projects. "As a result," says Holck, "in 1990 to 1991, I made contact with an ex-US marine and we created a 30-man squad of guards, patrolling this huge area which contained 40 villages in Jeeps. We trained them in unarmed combat. Then in 1991, four guards and an agricultural specialist they were escorting back from the fields to a village were murdered by the West Bengal police. The attacks continued until an Indian politician requested me to bring in enough weapons to arm the guards and the tribal people in the area. When I raised the question of safety, he said, 'Don't worry about the Indian side of things.' It was thanks to him that our plane was not inspected at Varanasi, and that the radar was turned off on the night of the arms drop."
If Holck is the humanitarian activist he claims to be, he is a highly unconventional one. While apparently a sincere and committed member of Ananda Marga at the time, he admits that he financed his voluntary work by buying gold in China and arranging for it to be smuggled into India, where it fetches a much higher price. He was also involved in smuggling gold, gems and Rolex watches out of South Africa, and gold-smuggling and even gold-mining in southern Sudan.
Justifying himself, Holck says: "We learnt from many NGOs, which spend 90 per cent of their time writing grant applications. We were more concerned about doing a lot." But as a Danish journalist who has devoted years to the case points out, "There is no way of knowing how much of the money he made was going into the charitable work." There is no way of knowing a lot of things about him...
He gives me a clue to the identity of the Indian politician on whose assistance he relied, which enables me to find out whom he was referring to – but a well-placed Indian source pooh-poohed the idea that this figure, a Bihari MP, was of sufficient seniority to guarantee that the arms-drop flight would not be touched. "I get the impression that if anyone could have managed the whole operation, it had to be the central government," he says. "Or at least the Congress party." He adds that it would also mean the involvement of India's domestic and international intelligence agencies and civil aviation authorities. "Could such a small-time politician achieve an operation on such a scale? "I doubt it."
The Ananda Marga community has consistently denied any involvement in the plot, and few people familiar with the case believe Holck's claim that it was the intended destination. So who were the arms really meant for? Some claim that they were intended for Bangladeshi insurgents to attack the Bangladesh army. Another possibility is that they were meant for Maoist militants, to enable them to destabilise West Bengal's communist government in the run-up to the general election of 1996.
Whatever the true destination, Holck is not the central figure in the story, despite his exotic CV. "His was not the main conspiracy in this affair," says Bleach. "Like me, he was a pawn. A lot of people close to the summit of Indian government and intelligence would have to have signed off on the arms-drop plan for it to go ahead." This may explain why India was in no hurry to extradite Holck before – and also why, according to both Holck and Bleach, the enigmatic Dane will be in grave peril if the extradition goes through.
"If Holck is extradited to India, he won't last a week," Bleach says. "They would probably kill him in jail. India's Central Bureau of Investigations have known exactly where he was since not long after his escape, but they have always pretended to the courts that they did not know.
"So why have they suddenly started to try to get him back to India for trial? What has changed? It can only be that there has been a power shift in Delhi, perhaps some old scores are being settled. But all the people involved in this were powerful people, and you can be sure that the last thing they want is the risk of Niels Holck standing up in a Calcutta court and naming the politicians in Delhi who were in it with him. It would just be an unfortunate accident, and the whole case would be closed.
"Personally, I don't want Holck anywhere near India and that kind of risk. In an ideal world, I want him standing before a Danish judge, telling his entire story on oath."
Bleach, who on his return to England got a job helping look after a castle in his native Yorkshire, knows what it feels like to be a pawn – then to be discarded and disowned. "The Special Branch knew everything about the drop at least three months beforehand," he says, with a trace of bitterness. "They knew its flight plan, they knew it had to land at Varanasi. But when I got to court, suddenly nobody had even heard of me. They started off telling the court I was a suspect in one of their investigations. They tried very hard to pretend I hadn't told them all about this in advance. It took me two days of cross-examination to break the guy. He finally admitted that he was sent out by MI5...
"The crew and I were shocked when we discovered that we were to be charged with an offence that carried the death penalty. We didn't know that at the time. It's one thing to say, 'You're on your own mate.' But they lied – and the only reason to lie was to try to get me hanged. And I thought that was carrying things a little bit far."