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Airline swaps gun-running for good works: Southern Air Transport was run by the CIA and started the Iran-Contra scandal. But now, its staff assure Robert Block, its main job is saving Somalis

TOM IS a big pilot with a big I've-flown-it-all-and-seen-it-all-before pilot's smile. He lives in Florida and enjoys swimming alongside the alligators on the river near his home. He used to fly 'cargo' to CIA-backed rebels in Nicaragua; now he flies food to Somalia. Tom works for Southern Air Transport - once the CIA's very own airline, now the main relief carrier operating in the Horn of Africa.

Based in Miami, Florida, Southern Air Transport, or SAT as it is more commonly called, owns the world's largest commercial fleet of L-100 Hercules cargo planes. It is what is known in the business as a 'risk carrier', charging premium rates to fly to hot spots other airlines would not dream of going near. It was owned by the CIA from 1960 until 1973, when it was sold privately. Since March it has been an integral part of the Somalia aid operation.

According to the Southern Air spokeswoman, Judi Schneeman, SAT planes have completed 3,000 flights to Somalia from bases in Kenya, airlifting more than pounds 45m worth of supplies on behalf of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Unicef, Care, the Lutheran World Federation and the US government.

Pilots such as Tom and company officials such as Ms Schneeman are proud of the SAT record in Somalia. But no matter how much it denies any present links with the CIA, Southern Air cannot shake off its past.

A week before the first US troops landed on the beach near Mogadishu to start operation 'Restore Hope', Americans who were not aid workers started appearing in Somalia, ferried in on SAT's planes. This prompted one aid worker to comment, jokingly: 'I see the CIA has arrived.'

Most companies that work for the CIA are 'paper' companies, shells set up for a quick arms trade or an untraceable money transfer. But some are legitimate concerns for which CIA links are just an incidental part of business. Southern Air is one such company.

SAT was founded in 1949 as a small operation hauling cargo to the Bahamas. The CIA, looking to obtain airlines that could do covert work under a legitimate cover, purchased SAT in 1960 for dollars 300,000 and expanded the business into the Far East and Latin America.

Between 1984 and 1986 the airline delivered 'humanitarian' aid to the CIA-backed Nicaraguan Contras under a government contract. But it was also part of a covert network that supplied arms to the Contras at a time when the US Congress had banned such aid. SAT's role would have remained secret but for an occupational hazard. In October 1986 a transport plane traced to SAT was downed over Nicaragua and the sole survivor, Eugene Hasenfus, told his captors that the mission was backed by the CIA.

Mr Hasenfus's story eventually led to the unravelling of an even bigger scandal that became known as the Iran-Contra scandal. Again Southern Air was a key player on the Middle East side of the affair. In 1986 SAT planes, with their special 'oversize cargo capabilities', transferred 90 tons of TOW anti-tank missiles from Texas to Israel from where they were delivered to Iran as part of the Reagan administration's arms-for-hostages exchange.

James Bastian, who bought Southern Air in 1979 and who was himself once a lawyer for the CIA, pours scorn on press reports that suggest his Agency ties still exist.

So is SAT helping the CIA in Somalia? According to one experienced British relief official, the CIA has always been willing to use aid operations as a cover to get access to remote areas otherwise off limits. There are also plenty of reasons why the CIA would want to renew its ties with Southern Air now. SAT planes are flying over sensitive border areas between Somalia and Kenya, whose President, Daniel arap Moi, is rumoured to be providing aid to one of the toughest warring factions in southern Somalia.

Then there is southern Sudan, where rebels are fighting the fundamentalist Islamic government in Khartoum. Relations between Khartoum and Tehran are causing concern in the West and in Egypt, which is having its own problems with fundamentalists whom Cairo says are backed by Sudan.

Tom, however, says the old days are over and that Southern Air's work in Somalia is all above-board. He said he flies food to Somalia at least twice a day when on duty. Once he touches down it is up to the relief agencies and their Somali staff to unload and distribute the goods. 'It has been a pretty smooth operation overall,' he said. 'Nothing like Central America.'

Still, one has to wonder if the airline's description of itself in a recent press release was not meant to be ironic. 'We pride ourselves on being more than a cargo airline,' it boasts. 'From the common to the extraordinary, Southern Air Transport is 'The Uncommon Carrier'.'