Bulgarian journalist reveals new details about misuse of diplomatic flights and transferring weaponry to terrorists in Syria

In December 2016, a Bulgarian investigative journalist Dilyana Gaytandzhieva was among the first reporters who visited liberated neighborhoods of the eastern Aleppo. There, inside underground terrorist warehouses belonging to Al Nusra Front (Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria designated as a terrorist organization by the UN), she found weapons manufactured at the Bulgarian arms factory VMZ-Sopot, along with other weaponry of German and American origin. Furthermore, the large amount of accompanied documentation found in these arms storages provided details about manufacturers' and transporters' names. The Russian Foreign Ministry immediately sent an official protest to the governments of these countries, while further clarification was sought from the Bulgarian authorities.

Gaytandzhieva herself demanded sending Bulgarian parliamentary committee along with security experts Atanas Atanasov and Boyko Noev to the site, for the purpose of investigating illicit activities and how weapons of Bulgarian production came to terrorists in such quantities. Bulgarian public was very upset and Prosecutor's Office began an investigation, but unfortunately it did not move forward due to obvious foreign political pressures. Discovery also triggered Gaytandzhieva to start a deep and months-long investigation which tracked and exposed a massive covert weapons shipment network to terrorist groups in Syria, primary via diplomatic flights and maritime transport. These weapons were transported by private American companies under a covert CIA program for armament of Syrian rebels.

First, Gaytandzhieva traced weapons found in eastern Aleppo to its Bulgarian manufacturer, realizing that they were legally exported to Saudi Arabia and further forwarded to terrorists in Syria. In March and April 2017, she also tracked ship “Marianne Danica”, sailing under the flag of Denmark, making one of the regular courses Burgas-Jeddah-Burgas and carrying tons of hazardous cargo (i.e. weapons). Shipment of Bulgarian arms is not and intended for Saudi Arabia, which cannot use it, as its army was equipped only with Western weapons. Details about traced ship were published in Sofia-based daily Trud, along with an interview with Malik Al Kurdi, a Colonel of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Al Kurdi personally confirmed the fact that Eastern European weapons are being delivered to terrorists, noting that headquarters have been set up in Turkey and Jordan to ensure cooperation between the special services of 15 states (the US and allied countries), and that arms are being distributed not only to the "moderate opposition" but also terrorist organizations, officially designated as such by those countries.

Her investigation continued in following months and in July she published a bombshell report for Trud, which found that an Azerbaijan state airline company Silk Way Airlines was regularly transporting tons of weaponry to Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Turkey, under diplomatic cover as part of the CIA covert program. A report was accompanied with exhaustive documentation of fifty papers, detailing the precise logistical chain of the weapons as they flowed from their country of origin to the battlefield in Syria and Iraq. The leaked documents appear to be internal communications between the Bulgarian government and Azerbaijan's Embassy in Sofia detailing flight plans for Silk Way Airlines, which was essentially operating an "off the books" weapons transport service for the US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), Saudi Arabia and Israel. Instead of investigating involved individuals, the Bulgarian National Security agency interrogated Gaytandzhieva and demanded the source of the information she obtained (an anonymous source), and few hours later she was dismissed from her job without any explanation.

Five days ago, Gaytandzhieva gave exclusive interview to Tehran-based Fars News Agency, providing more details about the use of diplomatic flights. According to the documents, Azerbaijani Silk Way Airlines offered diplomatic flights to private companies and arms manufacturers from the US, Balkans, and Israel, as well as to the militaries of KSA, UAE, and USSOCOM. Diplomatic flights are exempt from checks, air bills, and taxes, meaning that Silk Way airplanes freely transported hundreds of tons of weapons to different locations around the world without regulation. They made technical landings with stays varying from a few hours to up to a day in intermediary locations without any logical reasons such as needing to refuel the planes. Among the main customers of the "diplomatic flights for weapons" service provided by Silk Way Airlines are American companies, which supply weapons to the US Army and USSOCOM. The common element in these cases is that they all supply non-US standard weapons; hence, the weapons are not used by the US forces.

She also explained that Azerbaijan's Foreign Ministry has sent instructions to its embassies in Bulgaria and many other European countries to request diplomatic clearance for Silk Way Airlines' flights. The embassies sent diplomatic notes to the foreign ministry of the relevant country to request such exemption. The foreign ministry sent back a note signed by the local civil aviation authorities giving exemption for the transportation of dangerous goods. The requests for diplomatic clearance included information about the type and quantity of the dangerous goods; heavy weapons and ammunition. However, the responsible authorities of many countries (Bulgaria, Serbia, Romania, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, Turkey, Germany, UK, Greece, etc.) have turned a blind eye and allowed diplomatic flights for the transport of tons of weapons, carried out by civil aircraft for military needs. Under IATA regulations, the transport of military cargo by civil aircraft is not allowed. To get around this legality, Silk Way Airlines applied for diplomatic exemption through local agencies.

Filip Vuković

Filip Vuković is a Serbian politologist and investigative journalist from Belgrade, covering the western Balkan area for Serbian, English and Italian outlets. His focus is on nationalism, ethnic tensions and economic policy in the post-Yugoslav area. Currently, he is preparing a PhD dissertation at the University of Padua.