- The Washington Times - Friday, January 22, 2010

SHYMKENT, Kazakhstan

The trail of the plane seized in Thailand last month for reportedly 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 Associated Press investigation has found.

The persistence of carriers willing to ship anything anywhere for a price - even to countries under international sanctions such as 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, denied he had anything to do with the seized shipment of 35 tons of explosives, rocket-propelled grenades, surface-to-air missiles and other weaponry.

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

They often did not know what their cargo really was, four of the 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, Mr. Zykov insisted that his crew wasn’t working for him at the time of the Dec. 12 weapons seizure. He said all five took 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,” Mr. Zykov said before hanging up the phone.

No one has taken responsibility for the arms aboard the flight, which, had it not been seized, would have followed a circuitous route spanning more than 15,000 miles.

The case came to light when Bangkok police, acting on a tip, 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 International 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 the Korean General Trading Corp. of Pyongyang, North Korea, are identified as the companies responsible for the cargo.

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

According to the arrested crew members’ families, Mr. Zykov has employed them for about a decade and hired them for the Bangkok flight.

Mr. 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.

Pavel Mogilevsky, who manages the compound, confirmed that the crew members arrested in Thailand were East Wing employees.

“Yes, those are our guys. They worked for us,” he said. However, he said, on this particular flight, they were moonlighting for another employer whom he didn’t identify; he denied East Wing was involved.

This is not the first time Mr. Zykov’s name has come up in connection with sanctions-breaking flights, said Brian Johnson-Thomas, an arms-trafficking specialist who works closely with the International Peace Information Service, a Belgium-based independent research institute that focuses on sub-Saharan Africa.

According to a U.N. Security Council report from November 2006, a firm owned by Mr. Zykov’s wife provided the plane that carried Somali volunteers to fight alongside the Hezbollah militia against Israel during the 2006 Lebanon war.

“It also flew [Somali] volunteers for training to both Libya and Syria,” Mr. Johnson-Thomas said.

He added that in both cases - the Somalia flights and last month’s Thai seizure - the Zykovs may have been unaware of how their planes were being used.

Mr. Zykov has links to a chain of companies that stretches across four continents. One - SP Trading Ltd., which leased out the plane for this shipment - was created just five months ago and is managed by a longtime Zykov associate, Yury Lunyov.

In the early 1990s, thousands of flight crews across the disintegrating Soviet bloc, most of them decades from retirement, were discharged, while well-connected businessmen bought up Soviet military cargo planes, mainly old Ilyushins and Antonovs, to start air freight companies.

Mr. Zykov got his start this way, and some of the airmen in Shymkent defended him as a man who looked after their interests in an industry where work is hard to find and often risky.

“Pretty much every month they call up with offers” of work, said Vitaly, a pilot in Vitebsk, Belarus, home of the fifth crew member arrested in Bangkok, Mikhail Petukhov. Vitaly, a friend of Mr. Petukhov’s who said they worked together previously in Sudan, asked that his surname not be used for fear of losing his job.

“It’s not easy working for them. For one thing, their planes are old, so the flights are dangerous. And it also means being ready to break pretty much every aviation law on the books,” he said.

“But it’s work, and they pay well,” he added.

In Shymkent, an engineer who has worked on Mr. Zykov’s planes for years said the men jailed in Thailand were part of his regular crew. But the engineer said crew members would have been free to take work from another employer between East Wing flights.

“You get paid to do the flight, and you don’t ask any questions about what’s inside the boxes,” said the engineer, who also asked not to be identified, fearing for his job.

SP Trading, the company that leased out the plane to make the North Korean shipment, was registered in New Zealand on July 29, roughly four months before the flight took off and three days after its Kazakh crew members had gathered in Kiev.

Mr. Lunyov conceded that a chain of lease agreements links the Zykovs to the plane and crew carrying the North Korean weapons, but he denied they were directly involved in organizing the shipment or knew of its contents.

The chain begins with Svetlana Zykova’s company in Sharjah, Overseas Trading FZE, leasing its 30-year-old Ilyushin-76 to a Georgian firm, Air West airlines.

The owner of Air West, Levan Kakabadze, told AP last month that he did not know the plane’s final destination or the real nature of its cargo.

Air West in turn leased the Ilyushin-76 to Mr. Lunyov’s SP Trading, a transaction carried out through two major New York banks, Deutsche Bank and JP Morgan Chase, which served as intermediaries along with a Georgian and a Danish bank, according to the lease agreement.

Both Deutsche Bank and JP Morgan Chase declined requests for comment on the transaction.

The Ilyushin’s roundabout flight plan looks as complicated as the paperwork that set it up.

It took off from Baku, Azerbaijan, and landed in Al-Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates and Bangkok before reaching Pyongyang, taking on its cargo and heading back to Bangkok.

Had it not been seized, it would have continued to Colombo, Sri Lanka, and then to Al-Fujairah and Kiev before doubling back to Tehran to offload and would have finished back in Europe, at Podgorica, Montenegro.

Total distance: 15,328 miles.

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