Article and Photos by Bernie Debusmann
If you ever find yourself driving in the small, sleepy emirate of Umm Al Quwain, you’ll no doubt soon come across an abandoned old cargo plane, which is currently used as a signboard for a local hotel. But this isn’t just any old abandoned aircraft.
According to the Aero Transport Data Bank, the plane – a Soviet-era Ilyushin Il-76 – was built for military service in 1975, and in the 1980’s entered Soviet military service under registration number CCCP-86715, and later Russian service under the registration number RA-86715.
In the early 1990’s, the plane was sold to a civilian company, Air Cess. This is where the plot thickens – Air Cess was a company that had been formed by Sergei Bout, the brother of notorious weapons trafficker Viktor Bout, who for a time operated part of his business from nearby Sharjah. Movie buffs will know that Viktor Bout was the inspiration for Nicolas Cage’s character in the movie ‘Lord of War’.
In 1998, the plane was re-registered to another company – AirPass – before again being re-registered, this time to Centafrican Airlines, which was supposedly based in the Central African Republic.
Two of these airlines – Air Cess and Centrafrican – were directly linked to Bout’s weapons trafficking activities.
A UN report from 2000 notes that Air Cess (which was based in nearby Sharjah but also registered in Equatorial Guinea) was used to move “large quantities” of weapons – using forged end-user certificates from Zaire and Togo – to UNITA in Angola.
Centafrican, for its part, had in the past been linked to weapons shipments to Liberia.
It’s unclear how exactly the Antonov came to its final resting place in UAQ – some say that the pilots were confused and landed nearby thinking it was elsewhere, others that it was bought specifically to be used as an advertisement.
Whatever the case may be, in the year 2000 Viktor Bout was – wisely – banned from entering the UAE ever again.
On a personal note, as a young reporter in 2011, I covered Bout’s court case in Manhattan, where he was facing charges of offering to supply weapons to FARC guerrillas in Colombia. I expected to find a hardened, thuggish gangster, but instead I found an out of shape, average looking man who seemed wholly disinterested in the court proceedings and in desperate need of a drink.
He ended up losing the case – despite his lawyer’s assertions that he was a political prisoner – and is currently serving a 25 year federal prison sentence.