Interesting article from The Velvet Rocket archives…
This was originally published in the Observer in 2002:
To people in the peaceful Wiltshire village of Brigmerston, their new neighbour seems like a perfect English gentleman: a tall, wealthy, bespectacled former Army officer.
But an investigation has uncovered evidence that behind the doors of a luxury house on the edge of the village, Andrew Smith runs a business empire which has made a fortune from a bloody African civil war that has claimed millions of lives.
Smith, 49, a former captain of the Royal Engineers, who runs his firm Avient from his home, faces claims that one of his companies was involved in mercenary-style operations deep in the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo. He also faces allegations that he has been trading with a notorious arms dealer, Ukrainian-born Leonid Minin. A United Nations report has accused Smith of organising bombing raids in the DRC on behalf of President Joseph Kabila to suppress rebel forces. It is alleged that three years ago Avient received Dollars 30,000 a month for recruiting crew from Ukraine to fly in Russian-made Antonovs behind enemy lines in 1999 and 2000.
One Avient contract signed by Kabila stated: ‘The crew will be advised that they will be operating along and behind the enemy lines in support of ground troops and against invading forces. It is specifically agreed that the crew. . .will undertake airdropping missions.’
The affair has clear overtones of dogs-of-war style mercenary activity. Liberal Democrat MP Norman Lamb has asked the British authorities to investigate the claims to see if there are grounds for a criminal prosecution. ‘I want to know how a British citizen with a company operating from Wiltshire can be involved in such military activities without breaking any law,’ he said.
Smith, who is contesting the UN claims, ran his African business through his Avient company registered in Zimbabwe. In this way Smith would have been able to avoid breaching the European Union arms embargo against the DRC put in place in 1993.
Any investigation is likely to study closely UN claims that Smith has a relationship with Minin, a senior member of a Russian organised crime syndicate, who is under investigation in five countries for crimes from gun running to art theft. Two years ago Minin was arrested in an Italian police raid on a hotel in northern Italy where he was found with 58 grams of cocaine, four prostitutes and Dollars 500,000 worth of African diamonds. Police also discovered a green briefcase stuffed with 1,500 pages of documents detailing numerous arms deals, including illegal sales to Liberia and Sierra Leone.
The Observer has obtained bank records found in Minin’s briefcase which detail payments made by one of Minin’s associate companies. These documents reveal that on 22 June 1999 Avient received a Dollars 100,500 payment from Engineering & Technical, a British Virgin Islands firm run by Minin’s business associate Valery Cherny.
The UN also accuses Smith of brokering the sale of six attack helicopters to the DRC government in April this year. Smith strongly denies this allegation. However, he did admit in an interview with The Observer to shipping military cargo to the Congolese government on behalf of Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe three years ago. Smith said: ‘We have worked with the governments of Zimbabwe and the DRC who are official organised governments of countries. We certainly don’t work for any rebel groups or any terrorists.’
Smith played down his role in the alleged bombing raids, saying the Congo ‘military hierarchy’ controlled the air crews and directed operations. He denied his company was a private military company involved in any bombing raids, stressing that it was principally a cargo-carrying business dealing mainly with commodities like food and computers. But Smith has admitted to ‘ferrying troops and people from place to place’ and leasing Russian-made transport aircraft to the Zimbabwean government for use in Congo.
He said: ‘I am not denying that we carried military equipment for the end-user governments, which is a perfectly legal operation to do. We are talking about three years ago. I did check everything with the British High Commissioner at the time. We have never been involved in the sale of goods at all, nor have we carried any military hardware out of the EC, so we have not broken any UN or EU embargoes.’ Smith also denied any relationship with Minin. He said: ‘I have never met the guy, spoken to him or communicated with him.’
Smith’s claims that he received the approval of the British High Commission could be embarrassing for the Government as there has been an arms embargo against the DRC since 1993. Lamb is to raise the matter in the House of Commons. ‘If it’s true that the High Commission OK’d such deals, I want to know why,’ said Lamb.
The disclosures that a former British soldier is helping military operations in central Africa will embarrass the Government. In the 1998 ‘arms for Africa’ affair it emerged that Sandline International, run by former British colonel Tim Spicer, had supplied weapons to Sierra Leone despite a UN arms embargo. Spicer avoided prosecution after it was revealed the British High Commissioner to Sierra Leone had approved Sandline’s plans.
Smith’s involvement in military operations in Congo is also likely to be a setback for government plans to license mercenary companies. Foreign Secretary Jack Straw claims such firms could be used in UN peace-keeping operations and other government-sponsored activities in trouble spots.