Saturday, October 06, 2007

For a Balkan shipping agent, wars are opportunities

NIS, Serbia: Tomislav Damnjanovic boasts that he has flown just about every possible cargo, from food and construction materials to cigarettes and weapons - hundreds of thousands of tons of weapons. Over the past 15 years this former airline employee turned airline owner has been a central figure in an arms smuggling network connecting the Balkans with Africa and the Middle East.

In the process, according to United Nations officials and a new report, he has broken sanctions and confounded attempts by customs officials to track and thwart his business.

Damnjanovic at a farewell dinner for some his staff. The Serbian government recently rescinded his airline's license to carry arms shipments. (Filip Horvat for The NYT)

Slowly, UN officials have begun to catch on to his work and have developed a clearer picture of his operations as a shipping agent, by tracing paperwork, flight manifests, bank accounts and what they describe as falsified documents.

But instead of facing jail time, those same officials say Damnjanovic has gone from strength to strength; indeed, they say, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have opened a new world of opportunities for him and fellow arms brokers.

Their moment came when he and other dealers shifted their focus away from smuggling and began to supply the United States and its allies - mostly from old stockpiles of weapons in Eastern Europe. Between 2003 and 2006, Damnjanovic emerged as the biggest air shipper of weapons from the Balkans to Iraq on behalf of the United States, working generally through subcontractors in a trade worth hundreds of millions of dollars, according to the report, which was issued recently by an agency funded by the United Nations.

That bonanza did not end his appetite, the report found, alleging that he went on to supply an Islamist group in Somalia, linked by the United States to Al Qaeda, thereby violating UN sanctions. As with all other questions of illegal dealings, Damnjanovic denied the accusations.

The evidence is amassed in a report by the South Eastern and Eastern Europe Clearinghouse for the Control of Small Arms and Light Weapons, a UN-backed research center based in Belgrade, and is being given on a restricted basis to customs and law enforcement agencies.

It compares his operations with those of the Russian arms trader Viktor Bout, and it states that the two have cooperated but that Damnjanovic has kept a far lower profile than the well-known Bout. In a sequence of interviews in Belgrade last Tuesday and Wednesday, Damnjanovic seemed remarkably open in describing his career, and defending it at length.

"You know how difficult it was to survive here" in Yugoslavia, he said in an office in a gated business park. Back in the 1990s when Slobodan Milosevic was the Yugoslav president and the country was under sanctions, breaking the law was all but inevitable, he argued.

By his own estimate the companies he ran flew more than 50 flights from Cyprus to Montenegro in the late 1990s carrying more than 1.5 million packs of cigarettes in a trade supported by Milosevic's government and by the authorities in Montenegro. The cigarettes were then smuggled into Italy, according to EU law enforcement officials.

Officially, he says he had no involvement with the smuggling. "My part was all official," he said, but added with a smile, "I think they had to go somewhere. I don't think it was Montenegro. You should know."

In 1996, a plane charted by Damnjanovic carrying spare parts for Libyan fighter jets crashed outside Belgrade, carrying his main business partner, who was killed. Weapons exports to Libya were prohibited under UN sanctions at the time.

Over the past decade, weapons shipments have made up the vast majority of his business as he has worked through a series of companies all based in Belgrade, his latest being named Tomisko, in recognition of his late business partner, Tomislav Miskovic.

Documents obtained by UN officials and the Belgrade research center, which were published in the center's guide, show a continued pattern of companies managed by Damnjanovic that have flown weapons to regions under UN sanctions.

In 2002, Damnjanovic sent a consignment of weapons - including AK-47-type rifles, rocket launchers, antipersonnel mines, and millions of rounds of ammunition - to Liberia, falsifying Nigeria as the destination, according to the new report.

Documents signed by Damnjanovic, and obtained and published by the UN-backed research center, show that the weapons were flown to Liberia, which was then under UN sanctions to punish it for encouraging the civil war in Sierra Leone by supporting rebels there in a gems-for-arms trade.

In the same year, the report states, millions of rounds of ammunition shipped by Damnjanovic to Rwanda were probably intended for Congo.

"What I did was completely official," Damnjanovic said in response to the documentation on Rwanda.

"What somebody else does with the weapons when they get there is up to them," he said.

According to the report's authors, despite evidence against Damnjanovic and traffickers, they have come to be seen as an essential part of the supply chain for the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Damnjanovic said that all of his current contracts were commissioned by companies working for the Department of Defense in Washington.

"One would have thought that business like this should not be rewarded with government contracts when we know what they were involved in in the past," said Adrian Wilkinson, the head of the UN-backed research center and an author of the report.

Hugh Griffiths, who wrote the report with Wilkinson, said law enforcement agents did not have the mechanisms in place to track potential arms smugglers.

"Neither defense contractors nor the military have a profiling system in place which would allow them to identify actors such as Damnjanovic and the others in these clandestine networks," he said.

The UN investigators suggest that in 2006, at the same time he was supplying weapons for the United States in the Middle East, Damnjanovic supplied 45 tons of weapons to the Islamic Courts Union forces in Somalia, a group linked by U.S. officials to Al Qaeda.

Damnjanovic said the flight was carrying clothes and shoes, and was somehow confused with the arrival of a similar aircraft carrying weapons.

But perhaps at last his past is catching up with him.

The Serbian government recently rescinded his airline's license to carry arms shipments.

"Everybody wants to wash their hands of it," he said, suggesting that the government knew all along of his activities.

And so, on Tuesday night, and in the early hours of Wednesday morning, Damnjanovic gave a farewell party here in Nis for some of his crew and staff members, saying he would restructure his company and try to compete in the European freight market - legitimately, he said.

For a Balkan shipping agent, wars are opportunities - International Herald Tribune