Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Avient Air in Venezuela

The above photograph was taken in Venezuela yesterday. It shows a McDonnell Douglas MD11 coming in to land at Barcelona airport. The livery is that of Avient Air.

Avient is a controversial company. Based in Wiltshire and run by former British Army officer Andrew Smith, their activities in Africa were highlighted by Amnesty in 2003 here:

In the government-controlled area of DRC , the UN found that a mining company, Oryx Natural Resources, had a close working relationship with Avient Air, a military company which supplies services and equipment to the Zimbabwean and DRC military.
The UN found a record of a payment in September 2001 of US$35,000 from the Oryx account at Banque Belgolaise to Avient Ltd., Avient Air’s sister company based in the United Kingdom.
In April 2002, Avient Air brokered the sale of six attack helicopters to the DRC government. Under the management of a former British army captain, Avient Air had been contracted to organize bombing raids into eastern DRC in 1999 and 2000. At the same time Avient Air organized logistics and transportation of mining equipment for Sengamines – a partly Zimbabwean-owned venture which is closely associated with the Zimbabwe Defence Force (ZDF) and in which Oryx Natural Resources is a shareholder – and was granted exclusive rights to two of DRC’s richest diamond concessions in 1999 by the then DRC President, Laurent-Désiré Kabila.
And here:
Another example is the Zimbabwean company, Avient, with management links to the UK, which was reported to have hired Russian aircraft and air crew to support the government of Laurent Kabila in the Congo with “air drops”, and also admitted to repairing and maintaining Russian MIG fighters for the Kabila regime.
In October 2002, a report of the United Nations Security Council accused two UK residents, John Bredenkamp and Andrew Smith, of illegally providing services and military equipment to the Zimbabwean Defence Force (ZDF) for use in the DRC. The UN said that Bredenkamp, a Zimbabwean businessman and one of the richest people in the UK,217with a personal fortune estimated at £720 million, was breaching EU and British sanctions against Zimbabwe through his arms brokering company Aviation Consultancy Services (ACS), in which he holds an active investment.218

ACS had offices in South Africa, Zimbabwe and the UK, and has worked with Smith’s company Avient Air. According to the UN, ACS has acted as a representative for major European arms contractors such as Agusta of Italy and BAE Systems of the UK. In the early 1980s, BAE supplied 12 Hawk jets to the Zimbabwe Defence Force (ZDF). But the UK and the EU respectively imposed an arms embargo on the country in May 2000 and February 2002. Contrary to those arms embargoes, the UN Report alleged that BAE spare parts for the ZDF Hawk jets, worth $3 million, were supplied by ACS in 2002. In addition, the UN obtained copies of invoices from Raceview Enterprises, a company controlled by Bredenkamp, for deliveries worth $3.5 million of camouflage cloth, batteries, fuels and lubricating oil, boots and rations.
And subsequently in a number of questions in the Lords in 2003:
The Lord Avebury—To ask Her Majesty’s Government what response they have made to the allegations against a United Kingdom-based company, Avient Limited, in Annex 3 of the initial United Nations Expert Panel report on the Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources and Other Forms of Wealth in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, published in October 2002. [FCO] (HL4881)

The Lord Avebury—To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they had prior knowledge of contracts between the United Kingdom-based company, Avient Limited, and the governments of Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo to supply military services, as claimed by Mr Andrew Smith, a director of the company. [FCO] (HL4882)

The Lord Avebury—To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will give the dates and subjects of discussions between representatives of the United Kingdom-based company Avient Limited and the United Kingdom High Commission in Harare. [FCO] (HL4883)

The Lord Avebury—To ask Her Majesty’s Government when they informed Rights and Accountability in Development and its Congolese partner, Action contre l’impunité pour les droits humains, that they had been accepted as complainants against the United Kingdom-based company, Avient Ltd, in respect of alleged violations of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s guidelines for multinational enterprises. [FCO] (HL4924)

The Lord Avebury—To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will give further details of the operations by an MI 24 attack helicopter in the Democratic Republic of Congo, said by the United Kingdom-based company Avient Limited to have been involved in the relief of isolated places; and what steps were taken by the National Contact Point for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Guidelines to obtain independent corroboration of the company’s account of the use made of this machine. [FCO] (HL4980)
A report in 2006, in the Sunday Times, added detail:
Under a crewing agreement [Andrew] Smith had signed with General Joseph Kabila, the future president of the Congo, on September 21, 1999, Avient undertook to provide aircrew who would “operate along and behind the enemy lines in support of ground troops and against the invading forces”.

Pelham claims he found that Ukrainian and Russian aircrews recruited by Avient on behalf of the Congolese airforce were flying blanket bombing raids that in all probability were killing and maiming civilians caught in the war zone thousands of feet below.

Rudimentary bombs made from industrial gas cylinders filled with TNT were being rolled out of the backs of giant Antonov transport aircraft flown at high altitude in indiscriminate raids, according to Pelham.

The crewing agreement signed by Smith and Kabila noted that Avient was acting as an “intermediary to facilitate the supply” of aircrew and said the company could not be held accountable for the individual performance of crew members.

Pelham says that the reality was different. He alleges that Avient was providing crews for aircraft involved in military activities, including Antonovs and an MI-24 attack helicopter gunship, and that Smith knew what they were doing.
In 2008, Avient was accused of helping import Chinese arms into Zimbabwe. There was a fascinating comments thread at This is Zimbabwe at the time. Scroll down to comment 29 and later.

The earlier allegations against Avient were investigated (.doc) by the DTI, as it was at the time, and rejected after the UN failed to offer any evidence.

I emailed Avient to ask what one of their planes was doing in Venezuela and, after complying with a request that I supply my home address and telephone numbers to them, I received the following mail from Andrew Smith. I had of course made it clear in advance that I would publish our correspondence:
Dear Mr Risdon

I am aware of the various accusations which have been made and they are all unfounded,

The authorities including Customs from whom we receive permission to load and depart from Europe are responsible for supervising the export of all goods.

Since the aircraft was loaded in Copenhagen International Airport for a flight to Venezuela, you can be assured nothing was untoward. The Freight Forwarder involved is Major Multinational Organisation, and that is whom we have contracted with to carry this cargo for the oil industry

Thank you for providing your details, should you feel inclined to take further interest may I suggest you direct your enquiries to the Customs Authorities in Copenhagen.

Yours sincerely

Andrew Smith
The suggestion that the cargo was related to the oil industry is plausible. Barcelona is probably the best-placed airport in Venezuela for goods destined for the Orinoco oil belt, one of the largest oil sand deposits in the world, and one that is moving into large scale production at the moment.

Avient has a strong presence in Zimbabwe, indeed it is sometimes described as a Zimbabwean company. I don't imagine it could have hurt their chances of getting this sort of contract that Chavez regards Mugabe as his "brother".

Africa watchers tend to pay special attention if Avient's livery is spotted in a trouble spot. Given Chavez's penchant for sabre rattling, I'd say this situation is worth monitoring.

And I wonder what the usual supporters of the Venezuelan regime would have to say if a business with these sorts of currents swirling round it were flying into, say, Israel with supplies.

1 comment:

SnoopyTheGoon said...

Well, money talks in cases like this. But you are right - if it were Israel providing arms to Venezuela (which, I guess, some of the local dealers would be still happy to do), the stink would have been beyond the usual ;-)