Mon, Jan 25, 2010 - Page 9 News List

A shadowy round-the-world arms deal traced to Kazakhstan

By Simon Shuster  /  AP , SHYMKENT, KAZAKHSTAN

The trail of the plane busted in Thailand last month for allegedly smuggling North Korean weapons to Iran leads back to a small air freight company housed near an old Soviet airfield on the edge of the Kazakh steppe.

The aging Russian plane’s odyssey took it through a web of companies, financiers and air cargo carriers with addresses stretching from New York through the Persian Gulf to New Zealand, an investigation has found.

The persistence of carriers willing to ship anything anywhere for a price — even to countries under international sanctions like Iran and North Korea — has frustrated global efforts to stem the flow of illegal arms.

Alexander Zykov, whose crew was flying the plane grounded in Bangkok, denies he had anything to do with the seized shipment of 35 tonnes of explosives, rocket-propelled grenades, surface-to-air missiles and other weaponry.

However, family members say the plane’s pilot and crew were working for Zykov’s East Wing air freight company when they were taken into custody, and crewmen who have worked for Zykov said they have flown cargo on rattletrap Russian planes into conflict zones such as Sudan and Somalia.

They often did not know what their cargo really was, four of these crewmen said. Two of them spoke of an industry that sometimes uses falsified flight documents and skirts customs rules.

The Soviet collapse left an infrastructure of idled aircraft and pilots desperate for work and the families of the arrested crew portrayed them as pawns in this arms trade.

Speaking from the Kazakh city of Almaty, Zykov said his crew wasn’t working for him at the time of the Dec. 12 weapons seizure, saying all five took an unpaid leave about two weeks before the flight. He and his wife, Svetlana Zykova, who is listed as the plane’s owner, denied any knowledge that arms were involved.

“Go find the people who ordered this flight,” Zykov told a reporter and hung up the phone.

Reporters spent three weeks trying to do that, studying documents and talking to pilots, shippers, government officials and experts on arms trafficking.

No one would take responsibility for the arms aboard the flight, which, had it not been seized, would have followed a circuitous route spanning more than 24,150km.

The case came to light when Bangkok police, acting on a tip, said they seized the Russian-made Ilyushin-76 cargo plane and its five-member crew — four Kazakhs and a Belarusian — after finding weapons on board.

All five have been charged with possessing arms and are in a Thai jail pending investigation.

The Russian-language flight plan names Mehrabad Airport in Tehran as the cargo’s destination. The cargo manifest lists “oil industry spare parts” of various types, but no weapons.

Aerotrack Ltd of Ukraine and Korean General Trading Corp of Pyongyang are identified as the companies responsible for the cargo.


‘ZYKOVTSY’

Shymkent, the town where the four Kazakh crew members come from, is a dismal ex-Soviet outpost full of ramshackle houses and kebab shops. Zykov, a local cargo magnate, is something of a legend there and the airmen who work for him are known around town as “Zykovtsy” — Zykov’s guys.

The arrested crew’s families said Zykov has employed them for about a decade and hired them for the Bangkok flight.

Zykov houses his pilots in a compound at the edge of town protected by barbed wire, cameras and a snarling guard dog at the gate. Its massive concrete walls and satellite dishes stand out among the surrounding shacks and hovels.

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