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Gunning for the gunrunners: the arrest of three men who are allegedly the world's most notorious arms dealers may shed some light on their murky demi-monde in the Middle East.

THREE MEN--an Israeli, a Russian and a Syrian--are behind bars in Moscow, Madrid and Bangkok. All are known as leading figures in the murky world of arms trafficking. All face judicial proceedings, including extradition, that could lift the veil on their deadly business and its links to the Middle East and the Latin American narcotics trade.

The investigations into the activities of these three men could illuminate the dark relationship between many intelligence communities and the criminal syndicates that run the arms-for-drugs trade, and how Israel engages in covert operations in Latin America and elsewhere. These illegal, corrupt and sometimes bloody activities are usually conducted in concert with the Americans, but often the Israelis are just in it for themselves and the hefty profits to be reaped.

To what extent any of that will happen remains to be seen, but the reasons these men are in prison have a bizarre common link--Colombia, the cocaine capital of the world. Central and South America, plagued by revolutionary groups, state-run death squads and drug cartels, has for decades been the high-paying stamping ground of arms dealers, mercenaries and intelligence services--particularly the Israelis.


The Israeli among the trio languishing behind bars is Yair Gal Klein, like the others, a hardened veteran of the international arms trade and the shadowy world of the soldier of fortune, where the line between legal and illegal is usually a fine one, frequently crossed. Klein was detained at Moscow's Domodedovo Airport on 27 August 2007, on an Interpol warrant when he attempted to board a flight for Tel Aviv with a doctored passport.

The Russian authorities had been alerted by a tip-off from Interpol, which several months earlier had issued an international arrest warrant for the 61-year-old mercenary. He had been on the run since a Colombian court had sentenced him--another in absentia--to 10 years' imprisonment in 2001 for training right-wing paramilitaries of the Autodefansas Unidas de Colombia (United Self-Defence Forces of Columbia, or AUC) in the 1980s.

On 12 March, a Moscow court ruled that Klein, a former lieutenant colonel and Special Forces commander in the Israeli Army, could be extradited to Colombia, a process that could take up to 18 months--and only if the Russians choose to cooperate with the international justice system. The AUC has been linked to many massacres in Colombia and is deeply involved in the cocaine trade. Colombian authorities repeatedly tried to extradite Klein from Israel, but authorities there refused every attempt.

However, on 3 April 2007, Interpol issued an international arrest warrant for three Israelis accused by Colombia of criminal conspiracy and training the private armies of drug barons, including the notorious Medellin cartel--Klein and two of his longtime associates, Teddy Melnick and Abraham Tzedaka, whose current whereabouts are not known.

Melnick and Tzedaka were top men in the "counter-terrorism" company Klein established in Tel Aviv when he left the Israeli Army in the early 1980s. It is called Spearhead Ltd., Hod Hadanit in Hebrew. It had connections with many serving and retired senior army officers.

One of the kingpins of the Israeli mercenary mafia was David Marcus Katz who dominated much of the arms dealing across Central America from his headquarters in a leafy suburb of Mexico City, guarded by Israeli mercenaries. Katz, who had strong links with Israel's religious right, was often paid in narcotics. The profits were frequently laundered through Hassidic Jews in New York, some of whom are now serving prison terms.

The second member of the trio is Viktor Bout, a beefy former Russian Air force major who is widely considered to head one of the world's most prolific arms trafficking operations. He was arrested in Bangkok on 6 March 2008 on suspicion of plotting to ship anti-aircraft missiles and other arms to drug-dealing anti-government rebels of Fuerza Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC), sworn enemies of the AUC. The US branded FARC a terrorist organisation in 2001.

Bout's lieutenant, Andrew Smulian, was arrested in Romania and is now being held in the US on the gunrunning charges. Both deny the charges. Bout's longtime associate and accountant, Richard Chichakli, a Syrian-born naturalised American who lives in Dallas, Texas, has not been charged. They have worked together since Bout set up the air cargo business that is the core of his alleged gunrunning operation in Sharjah, in 1993.

Bout is alleged to have some 40-50 Russian-built Antonov and Ilyushin transport aircraft which he snapped up at bargain basement prices after the collapse of the Soviet Union. He used these to supply arms to Al Qaeda and the Taliban in the 1990s and was reported to have been in Beirut during the 2006 war, dealing with Hizbullah to provide weapons to fight the Israelis.

Bout eluded arrest for years for breaking UN arms embargoes by supplying weapons to African conflicts. He has never been convicted, even though he was wanted by the Clinton administration in the 1990s. He was the subject of a Belgian arrest warrant for money-laundering and is on the blacklists of the United Nations and the US Treasury Department.

"Viktor Bout no doubt faces some of the most extraordinarily serious conspiracy charges possible for crimes against Americans," Michel Leonhart, acting US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) administrator, said in New York. "We are one step closer to ensuring Bout has delivered his last load of high-powered weaponry and armed his final terrorist."

The third member of the trio is Monzer Al Kassar, a Syrian who allegedly runs a shadowy arms and drugs network that stretches from the Middle East to Latin America. He is in prison in Spain, where a court has approved his extradition to the US on charges of conspiring to ship air-to-air missiles and anti-armour missiles to FARC in a $15m deal in 2006-07 and conspiring to kill American officers. At one time Kassar, 61, had close ties with Rifaat Al Assad, the disgraced uncle of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad. Rifaat has homes in Spain and France. He and Kassar fell out some years ago and were recently involved in a legal battle in Spanish courts.

Kassar, who US authorities say has armed militants from Iraq to Nicaragua, has lived in Spain for several years and was arrested at Madrid's Barajas Airport on 7 June 2007, from the Mediterranean resort of Malaga. A longtime resident of Spain, he lives in a guarded palazzo in Marbella, where he is heavily involved in real estate and widely known as "the Prince of Marbella", because of his opulent lifestyle.

His longtime partners, Tareq Mousa Al Ghazi, identified as a Lebanese, and Luis Felipe Moreno-Godoy, a Spaniard, were arrested in Bucharest by Romanian authorities the same day Kassar was apprehended. They were extradited to Madrid and also face extradition to the US and possible life sentences.

In 1992 Kassar was arrested in Spain on charges of involvement in the 1985 hijacking of the Italian cruise liner Achille Lauro in the Mediterranean by the Palestine Liberation Front and he spent 14 months in custody until being released on bail. In 1995 a Spanish court cleared him of all charges, citing "lack of evidence".

But several countries, including Britain, refuse him entry visas. Meanwhile, US intelligence has linked him to extremists in the Middle East, Latin America and Africa.

There are several similarities between the cases involving Bout and Kassar that could indicate they are connected in some way. Both men were caught in "sting" operations run by the DEA whose undercover agents posed as arms buyers from FARC. Both used Bucharest as a meeting point with the DEA agents setting them up. The arms were supposed to be shipped from Bulgaria through Greece to Nicaragua and then air-dropped--a Bout speciality--into Colombia.

But why is the DEA involved in busting arms dealers? Both Bout and Kassar have allegedly either been involved in drug trafficking or are linked to narcotics dealers. In recent years, FARC has become firmly allied with Colombian cocaine cartels, while the AUC is linked to rival organisations. Colombian police say that the Russian mafia, for instance, has been smuggling arms to that country through Brazil for years, and been paid in cocaine, which they then smuggle to Europe using the reverse route they used to deliver the weapons.

In Latin America, the Israelis operated in places like Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua during the Cold War years in an alliance of convenience with the US. It was an alliance Israel's defence establishment found extremely lucrative in terms of arms sales to brutal and corrupt regimes and other questionable parties.

This arrangement, according to Andrew and Leslie Cockburn in their book Dangerous Liaison, "came with the tacit understanding by all parties that Israel could do what the US could not". Israeli General Matityahu Peled put it more bluntly in the 1980s: "In Central America, Israel is the 'dirty work' contractor for the US administration. Israel is acting as an accomplice and arm of the United States."

The willingness of western intelligence agencies to use such people to do their dirty work may be just as valid now, spurred by George W. Bush's global war against terror and the pressing need to penetrate terrorist organisations.

It will be illuminating to see whether Klein, Bout and Kasser, given their links to US, British, Russian and Israeli intelligence services and the secrets they share, ever go to trial, even more illuminating if they are actually convicted and sentenced to prison terms.

Klein, Bout & Kassar have all at various times been stalked by major intelligence agencies--particularly Israel's Mossad, the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Britain's Secret Intelligence Service. But, given the constantly changing imperatives of the intelligence establishment, over the decades these organisations have frequently used such men, with "plausible deniability", to further the interests of their governments, turning a blind eye to criminal activities when it suited their dark purposes.

And that could be another reason why the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is involved in the cases against Bout and Kassar. There have long been suspicions they enjoy high-level protection from the CIA, which has allegedly used them to provide weapons to unsavoury people and organisations with whom the agency, or the US government, did not want to be publicly associated.

For instance, Kassar, according to US court documents, played a role with the Americans in the Irangate scandal, in which Ronald Reagan's White House secretly sold weapons to Iran in the 1980s and used the profits to fund the Contra guerrillas in Nicaragua. The Pentagon contracted Bout to fly arms into Iraq in 2004-05, even though he was wanted for supplying weapons to anti-American extremists like the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
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Title Annotation:CURRENT AFFAIRS; Yair Gal Klein, Viktor Bout, Monzer Al Kassar
Author:Blanche, Ed
Publication:The Middle East
Geographic Code:70MID
Date:Aug 1, 2008
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