BiH Airline Suspected of Arms Trafficking

A plane identified as being operated by ICAR Air of Tuzla was allegedly used to bring weapons into a UN prohibited area in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Weapons trafficking to Congo have fueled a dangerous regional war.

The United Nations has asked the government of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) to supply information about a local company they say violated international sanctions and trafficked weapons to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

A letter from the UN office that oversees operations in Congo has given the BiH until Dec. 22 to provide information on the flight of the plane carrying weapons that landed in Kisangani, Congo, in August. The UN has prohibited arms deliveries to Congo, where a serious border conflict has escalated into a regional war. The large Russian-made Ilyushin 76 (IL-76) cargo aircraft is registered to ICAR Air.

The company is registered in Tuzla and owned by businessmen Rifet Karasalihović, Osman Sarajlić and Silver Air, an airline from the Czech Republic. Aircraft registration records show that ICAR-Air owns one airplane, a small L 410 cargo plane that makes regular flights to Ancona, Italy, among other destinations.

Radmil Vujičić, senior advisor for Safety and Air Carriers for the BiH Civil Aviation Directorate, confirmed that ICAR Air received a permit to lease an Il-76 from Air Tomisko of Serbia from August to December of this year.

ICAR Air’s Karasalihović denied that his airline was involved in illegal arms shipments.

“We signed a contract with Air Tomisko and we were supposed to rent an Ilyushin 76 plane. However, the contract was never implemented and we did not rent the plane,” said Karasalihović.

Air Tomisko was owned by Tomislav Damnjanović, a Serbian businessman. Damnjanović, according to a report from the South Eastern and Eastern Europe Clearinghouse for the Control of Small Arms and Light Weapons (SEESAC), smuggled tobacco and arms as one of Slobodan Milošević sanction busters, during and after the last war. Damnjanović has been linked to companies that have transported weapons throughout Africa and the Middle East both legally and illegally, SEESAC’s report said. Damnjanović’s airline was shut down by the Serbian government recently for failure to comply with safety rules.

The Center for Investigative Reporting in Sarajevo (CIN) tried to contact Damnjanović but phone numbers listed for his businesses were disconnected. Reporters did reach Miloš Davidović, who identified himself as an employee at Air Tomisko. Davidović said Air Tomisko had worked with ICAR Air but he knew no details. He denied all allegations against Damnjanović and said the owner was out of the country and that Air Tomisko was not working and may soon be closed.

According to Vujičić, not only is a permit for leasing the plane necessary, but an additional permit is necessary from the BiH Ministry of Foreign Affairs to ship weapons.

ICAR Air unsuccessfully attempted to obtain permission to fly arms under a diplomatic banner, according to Zoran Perković, assistant to the minister of foreign affairs for international legal and consular relations.

“The people from ICAR Air came to meetings several times and requested permits for urgent diplomatic flights,” said Perković. “Since those were not diplomatic flights but rather transporting weapons, (the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) refused to issue permits for flying over other countries.” The BiH government plans to give the UN information such as flight plans, cargo manifests and leases.

“We don’t know anything except the fact that the airplane of a company registered in BIH was found transporting military equipment in Congo. That’s all we know and we will do internal checks,” Perković said. The DRC has been mired for years in some of the worst regional fighting in Africa. In 2005, Amnesty International claimed that large quantities of arms from the Balkans and Eastern Europe were flowing into the region, helping to fuel killings, torture and rape. The UN now has severe sanctions to keep out more weapons.