Bloody trade that fuels Rwanda's war
Saturday 23 November 1996
It was 1993 and the UN had banned sales of weapons to Somalia as warring clansmen reduced the country to chaos. "In impounding this ship," James Michel, the Seychelles Defence Minister, said, "we did the international community a service." There was no doubt, as the death-toll in Somalia mounted, that a service had been done. Within a year, however, the weapons had been targeted by the unscrupulous operatives of a new arms-procurement network set up to devise ways of circumventing yet another UN embargo - that imposed on sales of arms to Rwanda after the murder of up to a million Tutsis in April and May 1994. Mr Michel and his colleagues did not know it, but they were about to fall victim to Colonel Theoneste Bagosora. Col Bagosora, a former Rwanda government defence official, had become the master arms buyer for the Rwandan government in exile as it regrouped for what, had it happened, would surely have been one of the bloodiest wars in African history. The planned return to Rwanda was codenamed Operation Insecticide by Hutu militias.
Col Bagosora is just one of dozens of businessmen, patriots and mercenaries operating from Kenya, Zaire, South Africa, Israel, Britain, Albania, the former Yugoslavia and Bulgaria, identified by a UN Commission of Inquiry into the extent - and sources - of illicit arms sales to Rwanda.
The deals are many, the methods ingenious, but perhaps the Seychelles sting is the best example of the lengths to which the former Rwandan government would go to re-arm. According to an unpublished UN report on the Commission's work, obtained by the Independent, the deal began with an approach to the Seychelles government by a South African businessman, Willem Ehlers, director of a company called Delta Aero.
Mr Ehlers said he was interested in buying the impounded weapons, including 2,500 AK-47s, 6,000 mortars and 5,600 fragmentation grenades, on behalf of the Zairean government, against whom there is no embargo. On 4 June 1994, he arrived in the Seychelles, accompanied by Col Bagosora who, with the apparent complicity of the Zairean authorities, had a Zairean passport and an end-user certificate bearing the seal of the Republic of Zaire. Two shipments were flown out of the country on 16 and 18 June - more than a month after the UN embargo was imposed - before the Seychelles government became suspicious and stopped a third consignment. Media reports, fuelled in part by the investigative work of the charity Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, had established that the weapons had been diverted to Goma and into the hands of the former government forces. It was a perfect sting; weapons impounded on behalf of the UN were used to circumvent another UN arms embargo. But it was one of many. "Highly reliable sources in Belgium, Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania and the United Kingdom painted a coherent picture of huge, loose, overlapping webs of more or less illicit arms deals, arms flights and arms deliveries spanning the continent from South Africa as far as Europe, particularly Eastern Europe," said the UN Commission's report, dated 28 October 1996.
"Those engaged in such activities make free use of fake end-user certificates, exploit loopholes in the law, evade customs and other airport controls by making clandestine night take-offs and landings, file false flight plans and conceal their movements by using fabricated zone permits, evading radar tracking and observing radio silence in flight." It has been suspected for years that a number of Britons or British companies had engineered arms sales to Rwanda up to the UN embargo of 17 May 1994. But last week came proof that at least one, Mil-Tec Corporation Ltd, had continued after it. Papers abandoned by fleeing Hutu militiamen in eastern Zaire showed that the Isle of Man-registered company had sold pounds 3.3m of arms, including consignments delivered in July.
One of the men linked to Mil-Tec, Kumar Anup Vidyarthi, vanished from his home in north London this week. His partner, Kumar Gupta, was traced to Nairobi but he failed to return the Independent's calls. Both men are Kenyan, a fact which, in the procurement maze, is significant. For it was in Nairobi, Kenya, that the plans for a triumphant, if bloody, return were being hatched. Each month, meetings of military officials and wealthy Hutus were held in Nairobi, where money was raised for the planned invasion. It paid for weapons known to have originated from Israel, Albania, Zambia, Ukraine and Spain. Evidence showed a fully armed force, estimated at 50,000 men, was being trained in Zaire.
It is a credit to the Commission that so much information was gleaned. It has become the norm for their requests for information from governments to be ignored. In the three months to September this year, its members travelled across Africa and Europe but, by the end of October, they were still awaiting replies to questions posed of governments in Belgium, Bulgaria, Cameroon, the Czech Republic, Egypt, Italy, Kenya, Malta, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, Britain, Zaire and Zambia.
It is emerging that the arms deliveries were not confined to 1994. Two years after the imposition of the embargo, they continued, with evidence of more than 150 tons of weapons entering the country from Zambia in May of this year, and of 60 tons being flown into Zaire aboard two Ukrainian- registered aircraft, and on to the former government forces, in June.
The Commission's latest task is to find out more about a Nigerian-registered aircraft carrying arms from Malta to Goma on 25 May 1994, which, according to documents recently uncovered, included one Col T Bagosora among its few passengers.
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