This has me wondering.
If you've been reading the news the last few days you may have noticed this odd and somewhat mysterious story of a US-registered cargo plane loaded with 64 "mercernaries" and various military equipment which was impounded Sunday night at Harare International Airport in Zimbabwe "after its owners had made a false declaration of its cargo and crew."
When asked about it on Monday, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said "We have no indication this aircraft is connected to the U.S. government."
That seemed like a rather less than unequivocal response. And behind the scenes US government officials said they didn't believe the US government had any connection with this operation. But they wanted to make sure before saying anything definitive.
Now, if you look at the press accounts, what's caught people's attention is the US registry of the plane. Specifically, it's registered to a company called Dodson Aviation, which is based in Kansas.
Now, Dodson says they sold the plane to a "reputable" firm in South Africa about a week ago. "I think they were going to use it for charter flights," company director Robert Dodson told the Associated Press.
Now here's a little more detail.
Dodson Aviation of Kansas has a South African subsidiary, Dodson International Parts SA Ltd (According to their website, "Dodson International Parts SA (Pty) Ltd is the African division of United States based companies Dodson International Parts Inc. and Dodson Aviation. The company was established in 1998 and is based at Wonderboom Airport, Pretoria.") And it was from this subsidiary's hangar at an airport just north of Pretoria that the aforementioned mercenaries boarded the plane.
Now, here's where this gets a little murky.
I wanted to find out more about Dodson International Parts SA Ltd. What I found something out about was a company that sounded very similar: a South African company called Dodson Aviation Maintenance and Spare Parts.
They're also in the airplane business.
Not exactly the same name. But remember, the South African company is the subsidiary of two American companies, Dodson Aviation and Dodson International. If these aren't the same company, or closely related companies, I'd figure they often get confused for one another.
In any case, here's what I found about Dodson Aviation Maintenance and Spare Parts.
They come up in the December 2000 Report of the Panel of Experts to the United Nations on Sierra Leone, in the section of the report dealing with the arms trade.
Here's the section that caught my eye (italics added) ...
187. Fred Rindel a retired officer of the South African Defence Force and former Defence AttachÃ© to the United States, has played a key role in the training of a Liberian anti-terrorist unit, consisting of Liberian soldiers and groups of foreigners, including citizens of Sierra Leone, Burkina Faso, Niger and The Gambia.
188. The panel interviewed Mr Rindel extensively. Rindel was contracted as a security consultant by President Charles Taylor in September 1998, and training started in November 1998. The contract included consultancy services and strategic advice to convert Charles Taylor's former rebel militia into a professional unit. The Anti-Terrorist Unit is used in Liberia to protect government buildings, the Executive Mansion and the international airport, and to provide VIP Security and the protection of foreign embassies. The numbers trained were approximately 1200. Because of negative media attention, Rindel cancelled his contract in Liberia in August 2000.
189. In 1998, ECOMOG identified a plane, registration number N71RD, owned by a South African company, Dodson Aviation Maintenance and Spare Parts, as having carried weapons to Robertsfield in September of that year. The plane is a Gulfstream 14-seater business jet that cannot be used for arms transport, but there are other relevant connections. Fred Rindel was the owner of Dodson. The company was closed on 31 December 1998, but during the period under investigation, the plane was leased to, and operated by, Greater Holdings (Liberia) Ltd., a company with gold and diamond concessions in Liberia. The plane was used for the transport of the Greater Holdings' staff to and from Liberia.
Mr. Rindel's name came up earlier in 2000 in testimony at the UN Security Council by then-UN Ambassador Richard C. Holbrooke in a discussion of Sierra Leone (italics added) ...
In regard to arms trafficking to Sierra Leone, Mr. Chairman, we remain concerned and I would like to add a few more items to the record. The principal Africa countries involved in arms trafficking to the RUF - though they deny it - include Burkina Faso, Liberia and Libya.
In 1999, planes landed in Ouagadougou, allegedly coming from the Ukraine, with several tons of small arms and ammunition. This incident, which the Ukrainians say has stopped, is one that we believe should be brought to the attention of your committee.
In regard to trafficking, arms brokers have played a vital role in keeping the RUF supplied with weapons and other military materiel. A well-known arms and diamond dealer in Sierra Leone, Zief Morganstein, in July 1999 arranged for a Continental Aviation-based charter out of Dakar to fly a shipment of small arms from Bulgaria to Sierra Leone. Last year the RUF received 68 tons of weapons from Bulgaria, which Morganstein may have helped arrange. There have been other connections between former government officials from South Africa during its Apartheid regime who now operate as private individuals, including Fred Rindel, the South African Defense Attache in Washington, who now works as a security consultant in Liberia and trains Liberian troops and RUF insurgents. There are other charges about other businessmen who are reportedly helping the Sierra Leone government coming from various countries around the world.
Now, I've scanned the news coverage of this and I haven't seen any mention of this seeming connection. So perhaps these are two utterly unrelated companies?
As of Tuesday the situation in Zimbabwe seems to be calming down, though now there are apparently fears in Equatorial Guinea that these mercenaries were somehow intended to assist a coup in that country. (No, I can't keep up either.) "Some 15 mercenaries have been arrested here," the country's Information Minister Agustin Nse Nfumu told Reuters. "It was connected with that plane in Zimbabwe. They were the advance party of that group."
Equatorial Guinea is next door to Gabon. And Joe Wilson used to be the US Ambassador there back in the day. So maybe he can make some sense of this. I can't. But I'd be very interested to talk to the investigators who put together that UN report and see if there's any connection between Dodson International Parts SA Ltd and Dodson Aviation Maintenance and Spare Parts.