Monday, May 19, 2008

Chinese arms reach Zimbabwe

South African newspaper The Weekender reported on Saturday that:

the Zimbabwean government confirmed that three million rounds of assault rifle ammunition, 3 000 mortar rounds and 1 500 rocket-propelled grenades - ordered from the Chinese government - had arrived in Harare.
Two details of the report stand out (emphasis added):
The Weekender quoted a Mozambican online newspaper, which reported that the ship had been refuelled by the SAS Drakensberg off the coast of South Africa before sailing north to offload its deadly cargo.

It reported that the ship was offloaded at Ponta Negra in the Democratic Republic of Congo. However, Zimbabwean government officials said it was offloaded in Angola.

The report said that President Thabo Mbeki gave "a direct instruction" to Deputy Defence Minister Mluleki George to send the SAS Drakensberg to refuel the An Yue Jiang.

Presidential spokesperson Mukoni Ratshitanga dismissed the reports, saying "it seems that the season of propaganda is upon us".

George said he had no instruction from Mbeki to dispatch the SAS Drakensberg and that the allegations had no substance.

However, the online article also said the arms were flown to Harare in an Ilyushin Il-76 belonging to Avient Aviation, a freight charter airline based in Zimbabwe but registered in the UK. This was confirmed by government officials in Harare, The Weekender said.

Zimbabwe's Deputy Information Minister Bright Matonga confirmed the weapons have been delivered.
SAS Drakensberg is a South African Navy ship, so it's hard to see how Mbeki isn't complicit, even if he didn't directly order the refuelling. He was certainly prepared for the arms to be unloaded in Durban, and only the principled actions of the dock workers' Union prevented thia.

Then there is the UK connection. Avient is a controversial business, run by a former British army officer, Andrew Smith. They have been accused of bombing civilians in the Congo in 2006. Even before that, in 2003, questions about them had been asked in the House of Lords:
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)
In 2002, Amnesty International suggested that Avient were complicit in sanctions busting operations that supplied arms to the Zimbabwean Defense Force. I spoke earlier today with Samantha Smith, who I assume is the wife of Andrew Smith. She denied the recent allegations absolutely, saying:
I am surprised people are prepared to take the word of a Zimbabwean minister when they will not do so under other circumstances
When I asked her why she thought the allegations had been made, she said it was, essentially, laziness:
We are the only Zimbabwean-registered freighter operator
She also told me that the DTI had investigated the older allegations and found them to be unfounded. In this document (.doc) on the renamed BERR website (formerly the DTI), the allegations were found to be unsupported - the UN failed to supply any evidence to support the claims. No results come up when a search for Avient Aviation is carried out at the UN website.

Avient does operate the IL76 model of plane that was allegedly used to transport the arms. Of course, that might be why the model was specified in the allegations.

Their website carries this disclaimer on the home page:

I should also say that Samantha Smith was very willing to discuss this, and offered to talk again if I had any further questions.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You might ask Mr Smith if the plane was owned by the Zimbabwean Government. !! This would of course absolve the company of any wrongdoing. Perhaps.????