In an amazingly ironic twist, the second foiled shipment this year of North Korean arms bound for Iran led to five former members of the Soviet air force being thrown into the same Bangkok prison where the former owner of their plane is incarcerated – notorious arms trafficker and ex-Soviet military translator Viktor Bout.
A Georgian-registered Ilyushin Il-76 cargo plane with 35 tons of armaments valued at $18 million, including surface-to-air missiles and rocket launchers, was stopped on Dec. 11 while refueling in Thailand. Thai authorities, alerted by U.S. intelligence, say the jet’s flight plan indicated a final destination of Iran. Its crew of five remain in custody.
The aircraft once belonged to a firm linked to Serbian arms dealer Tomislav Damnjanovic. According to the South Eastern and Eastern Europe Clearinghouse for the Control of Small Arms and Light Weapons (SEESAC), a United Nations-supported research center in Belgrade, Damnjanovic has heavy connections to ex-Soviet arms traffickers.
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Damnjanovic began his high-stakes weapons smuggling in the early 1990s under the tutelage of former high-ranking KGB officer Igor Avdeev and his United Arab Emirates-based team of fellow former Soviet spies.
“Like Viktor Bout, with whom he worked, Avdeev and his partners had migrated to the UAE as the country became a mecca for Russian businessmen and prostitutes, eager to exploit its no-questions asked, tax-free business zones and warm climate,” says a 2007 SEESAC report.
The UAE is where authorities in August seized a Bahamian-flagged freighter carrying military equipment from North Korea to Iran.
According to SEESAC, Russian contacts allowed Damnjanovic to utilize “an Ilyushin jet operated by Spair Air, a Russian company whose assets were later transferred to companies owned by Victor Bout and blacklisted by the US government.”
The same Ilyushin cargo jet grounded in Bangkok this month was previously registered with “three companies identified by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control as controlled by Viktor Bout, arguably the world's most infamous arms trafficker,” UPI reported Monday.
Bout, suspected of being ex-KGB, admits to having served as a Soviet Red Army officer and translator. He was arrested in Thailand in a 2008 U.S. sting operation on charges of plotting to sell sophisticated weaponry to the leftist FARC rebels in Columbia. A Thai judge in August refused to allow Bout’s extradition to the U.S., but he remains imprisoned in Bangkok.
Why would ex-Soviet military personnel with close connections to KGB alumni be interested in shipping millions of dollars in high-end weaponry from a communist country to a fanatical Islamic regime? Why would former Cold Warriors want Iran to have missiles that might stop Israeli bombers from destroying its nuclear program?
Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton in his bestselling book, “Surrender is Not an Option,” warned that “for rogue states like Iran and North Korea, nuclear weapons are the ultimate trump cards, which is why they show no evidence whatever of making a strategic decision to give up the pursuit of such weapons.”
The five ex-Soviet crew of that cargo plane and the ex-Soviet arms smuggler Bout, all now being held in Klong Prem Central Prison in Bangkok, have one thing in common: they all served in a communist military committed to destroying the United States.
In the aftermath of the Cold War, are they now committed to helping Tehran turn an American city into another Hiroshima?
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