Foiled arms drop has India puzzled

Mystery cargo: British pilot among captured crewmen

Tim McGirk New Delhi
Sunday 23 October 2011 04:40
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TIM McGIRK

New Delhi

It does not take long for a crowd to form in India, and when the body of a five-year old girl, the victim of a hit-and-run, was discovered on a lonely country road in West Bengal, 1,000 people gathered to mourn and to curse the driver.

The droning of a low-flying aircraft overhead momentarily distracted the villagers from their grief. Then several parachutes floated down and landed in the rice fields nearby. Harinaryan Gupta, uncle of the dead girl, said, "At around 11pm, the aircraft passed right over our heads with a deafening roar. Then we heard some loud thumps."

If it were not for the girl's accidental death in that country lane, Indian police might never have stumbled upon what authorities are describing as "an international arms-smuggling conspiracy". The parachutes drifted down with a deadly cargo: so far, authorities have discovered 224 AK-47 and AK-56 assault rifles, 17,282 rounds of ammunition, 10 rocket launchers and dozens of grenades, enough for a small revolution in the heart of India.

When police found that the air-dropped boxes were filled with weapons, they alerted the Indian military. Two jet fighters were scrambled to force down the aircraft, a Russian-made AN-26, before it crossed into Pakistani airspace. As the cargo plane taxied in to Bombay airport, the New Zealand co- pilot, Kim Davy, escaped into the teeming metropolis, leaving behind his crewmen, five Latvians and a British pilot who were arrested. The pilot was identified as Peter Bleach, a former British military officer. The crew of the chartered aircraft are being interrogated by the Indian Central Bureau of Investigation. Described in the Indian press as "mercenaries", the crew allegedly have confessed to air-dropping the cargo but to little else. The authorities are unsure as to who paid for the weapons and their delivery.

At first, suspicions centred on a secretive Hindu monastic order, the Ananda Marg, whose "global headquarters" is not far from Purulia district in West Bengal, where the arms were dropped. In a raid on their monastery, 11 Ananda Marg monks have been arrested, including three Americans, a Greek and an Irishman. No arms were found, and the sect has denied any involvement in the arms cache. Some Ananda Marg monks claim they are being harassed by the state's Communist government.

In the lawless borderland of Bengal and Bihar, there are any number of other suspects desperate for arms. This backward area of India is in the throes of a caste war between feudal landlords and peasants. Some outfits call themselves Maoist guerrillas, while others prefer the anarchist tag. But no matter what name they go by, everybody has guns. Some officials think the arms might have been used to sabotage elections next April. However, most of these peasants use rusty, hand-made muskets. They are too poor and lack the international connections for a shopping trips around the arms bazaars of the Far East, as these smugglers have done. Privately some Indian officials are blaming the country's neighbour and foe, Pakistan, for arranging the shipment. The Latvians are said to have spent two months in Karachi before they flew to the Far East, picking up the weapons along the way.

New Delhi authorities also pointed out that the plane was bound for Karachi using evasive manoeuvres when it was intercepted by Indian fighter planes.

Police set out for a house-to-house search in villages around Purulia for weapons yesterday.

A senior government official, who did not want to be named, told reporters a breakthrough had been made in identifying the intended recipients but declined to identify them.

Police suspect local villagers may have recovered some of the arms to sell on the black market.

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