UNITA rebels assisted by network of arms traffickers, diamond smugglers

UNITED NATIONS - Angola's UNITA rebels have managed to circumvent U.N. sanctions through a network of arms traffickers, friendly African governments and diamond smugglers who use tax havens to get their gems to market, a U.N. report said Thursday.

The report by a U.N.-appointed panel detailed for the first time the critical role played by air transport companies in the sanctions-busting enterprise, allegedly bringing the rebels the weapons they need to make war via third countries.

The 63-page paper is a follow-up to a groundbreaking expose in March that accused the presidents of Burkina Faso and Togo of accepting ''blood diamonds'' from UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi in exchange for illegal arms and fuel shipments.

Thursday's report doesn't name those presidents, but does refer to the complicity of their authorities in allowing UNITA representatives to do deals.

''What we are saying in the report is that the things that happen inside those countries cannot happen without the consent or complicity of some authorities in those countries,'' the panel's chairman, former Chilean Ambassador Juan Larrain, told a press conference.

Burkina Faso and Togo have denied they violated the sanctions, but have instituted new measures to ensure that no UNITA members operate in their countries.

UNITA's second-in-command, Paulo Lukamba Gato, blasted the U.N. report as ''twisted,'' saying it was based on testimony by prisoners of war and UNITA defectors.

The U.N. Security Council imposed an arms and fuel embargo on UNITA in 1993, a year before the United Nations brokered a peace agreement between the two sides that first went to war after independence from Portugal in 1975.

In 1998, six months before the war resumed, the council expanded the measures to include a ban on rebel diamond exports, which are estimated to have supplied UNITA with up to $4 billion since 1992.

The report found that as a result of new attention to the flouted diamond ban and a government offensive launched in September 1999, UNITA no longer is able to wage war the way it did two years ago. Arms and fuel shipments are greatly reduced, and UNITA has lost control of key diamond-mining areas.

But the report cautions against complacency and notes that UNITA still has a valuable stockpile of diamonds, a cadre of loyal dealers, and appears to be concentrating its mining efforts at three of the highest-value areas in Angola.

The report charged that a vast international operation allowed the rebels to circumvent the sanctions through the help of Victor Bout, a 33-year-old Tajik who emerged as an alleged key supplier to UNITA of weapons from Bulgaria in the late 1990s through his air transport company, Air Cess.

The document cites reports from the U.N. mission in Angola that Air Cess planes landed ''fairly frequently'' in UNITA territory between 1997 and 1999.

Efforts to reach Bout, who uses at least five different aliases, at his home in the United Arab Emirates were not immediately successful Thursday.

Lukamba Gato of UNITA said he had no knowledge of Bout or his air freight company. He acknowledged that UNITA was still selling diamonds on the international black market. ''Why shouldn't we? We have to defend ourselves,'' he said in a satellite telephone interview from Angola with The Associated Press bureau in Lisbon, Portugal.

The report documents loopholes that have allowed UNITA leaders to continue operating in European capitals. It recommends a host of new measures countries should consider adopting, including tightening customs controls at tax havens so ''blood diamonds'' don't pass through, improving checks on end-user certificates for weapons exports, and improving regulations on air companies that transport guns.


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