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Croatian Rijeka-Krk Airport uncovered as Pentagon's hub for transferring weaponry to terrorists

Croatian Rijeka-Krk Airport uncovered as Pentagon's hub for transferring weaponry to terrorists

A recently published analysis by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN), an investigative journalism organization from southeast Europe, discovered that a small international airport on a Croatian island of Krk has become an unofficial but important logistical hub for Pentagon's weapons shipments to various rebel or terrorist groups in the Middle East. According to the report, from April to September 2017 a total of 14 cargo flights were identified, carrying Eastern Bloc-style ammunition and unidentified weaponry for the Pentagon's wars in the region.

Only a few months before, BIRN and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) also carried out their own lengthy investigations and identified 68 cargo flights (50 confirmed as carrying arms and ammunition plus 18 likely) from South Eastern and Central European countries in just over one year, to three key suppliers of the Syrian rebels: Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates. The busiest airports in the Balkans by the number of flights have been Belgrade (45), Sofia (7), Niš (2), Burgas, Plovdiv and Veliko Tarnovo (1). Not counting subsequent flights, Rijeka-Krk Airport obviously established itself as the second most important hub, after Belgrade's Nikola Tesla Airport.

Both investigations are also consistent with findings of Dilyana Gaytandzhieva, a Bulgarian journalist who exposed a massive covert weapons shipment network to terrorist groups in Syria, primary via diplomatic flights and maritime transport. According to the discovered documents, numerous other airports outside of the Balkans have also served as hubs, including these in Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Turkey, Greece, Germany and the United Kingdom, as well as the Bulgarian maritime port of Burgas. Most of the air transfers involved the same airline as in the Rijeka-Krk Airport case, an Azerbaijani state-owned Silk Way Airlines. The upsurge of Croatian airport appears to be the result of the Pentagon's decision to switch its arms supply-line route to Syria away from Germany.

Background

Croatia was among the first countries to supply weapons to anti-Assad rebels as part of a CIA-led and Saudi-funded program. Their involvement in a murky business started in April 2012 when Vesna Pusić, as Croatian Minister of Foreign Affairs, attended the "Friends of Syria" summit in Istanbul, organized for purposes of supporting Syrian rebels. The Eastern and Central European weapons supply line can be traced to the winter of 2012, when dozens of cargo planes, loaded with Saudi-purchased Yugoslav-era weapons and ammunition, began leaving Zagreb bound for Jordan. Soon after, the first footage of Croatian weapons in use emerged from the battleground of Syria, and in the same time Croatia declared that it recognizes the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces as "the only legitimate representatives of the aspirations of the Syrian people."

According to the news from February 2013, such deals were agreed during a meeting in Washington in the summer of 2012 when a senior Croatian official offered the country's stockpiles of old weapons for Syria. Croatia was later put in touch with the Saudis, who bankrolled the purchases, while the CIA helped with logistics for an airlift that began late that year. A local daily newspaper reported there had been an unusually high number of sightings of Jordanian Ilyushin 76 cargo plane (owned by Jordan International Air Cargo) at Pleso Airport in Croatia's capital Zagreb, seen on December 14 and 23, and later on January 6 and February 18.

Director of the agency in charge of arms exports in Croatia, dismissed the Croatian report as speculation, and Croatia's government has consistently denied any role in shipping weapons to Syria. However, former US ambassador to Syria Ford confirmed to BIRN and the OCCRP that media reports were true, and said he was not at liberty to discuss it further. This was just the beginning of an unprecedented flow of weapons from Eastern and Central Europe into the Middle East, and similar deals were agreed with seven other countries. Two investigative organizations talked to government representatives in Croatia, Czech Republic, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovakia, and all responded similarly, stating that they are "meeting their international obligations" and that they're "not responsible if weapons have been diverted from Saudi Arabia."

Replacement of Germany

Thanks to exposure journalism and above-mentioned reports from 2016, CIA program suffered a major blow and several transfer routes were changed. In March, the Netherlands became the first EU country to halt arms exports to Saudi Arabia, as the Dutch parliament passed a bill calling for the government to halt such transfers, citing ongoing Saudi violations of humanitarian law in Yemen. Soon after, the European Parliament has called for an EU-wide arms embargo. This discussions and exposures also sparked a heated debate among German politicians, because their country has long been a key logistical hub for the US army, and is home to Ramstein Air Base, one of America's most important bases in Europe. Still, it's role in the Syria supply-line has never been acknowledged by authorities in the US or Germany.

US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) repeatedly declined to confirm whether it had been moving weapons through Germany to Syria prior to 2017, but an anonymous contractor involved in the supply-line said that American bases in Germany and Romania had formed a key part of the Pentagon's vast logistical operation, which saw Eastern Bloc weaponry worth more than $700 million shifted to Syria between September 2015 and May 2017. This claim was supported by the USSOCOM email leaked in December 2016, Pentagon flight cargo paperwork, United Nations arms export reports and data on transit licences through Germany. Following an official request from reporters, German Economy Ministry revealed an upsurge in weapons transiting to or from US military bases through Germany and onto another country in 2016.

Leaked emails reveal that in December 2016, the Pentagon ordered its contractors working on the supply-line to stop trucking weapons to US army bases in Germany because Berlin had become "very sensitive" about the deliveries. According to the documents, the Pentagon ordered nearly $16 million of Bulgarian ammunition for Iraq and Syrian fighters in September 2016. In April 2017, this order was amended to reveal that the delivery point, which had not previously been disclosed, had been switched from Germany to Croatia, or more precisely, more precisely Rijeka-Krk Airport.

Supply logistics and key actors

Since April 2017, ten flights have been operated by Pentagon-commissioned air carriers between Rijeka-Krk Airport and Al Udeid Air Base, the American-operated airbase in Qatar, with the last taking off on September 25. Each flight used a specific call-sign "CMB", given to cargo flights chartered by the Pentagon. Before landing in Rijeka, the planes used a commercial flight number, indicating that the military cargo was picked up in Croatia.

Evidence suggests the cargo is likely to have been cheap Eastern European arms destined for US-sponsored rebels in the Middle East. Qatar has not been named as an official hub for the Pentagon's program of arming anti-ISIS fighters, but is listed as the headquarters for American air operations in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Flight records also show that Pentagon-commissioned cargo planes regularly transport military supplies between Qatar and Kuwait, one of the depots for weapons destined for Syrian rebels.

The arrival of the cargo flights in Croatia coincides with the first Pentagon contract in a decade with Alan Agency, the Croatian state-owned arms broker. The Pentagon signed a deal worth up to $12.4 million for former Eastern Bloc weapons in April. When asked by BIRN about the final destination of these weapons, Alan Agency rejected any suggestion of impropriety: "We strongly deny all conclusions and assumptions from your messages," the agency said.

Another four flights to Rijeka-Krk Airport were carried out in June and July, by the Azerbaijani Silk Way Airlines which runs a fleet of giant Ilyushin-76 cargo aircraft. Leaked documents from the cargo carrier reveal that these aircraft delivered ammunition for Soviet-style weapons from Azerbaijan to the Croatian coast on behalf of the Pentagon's USSOCOM, a key player in funneling up to $2.2 billion of arms to Syrian rebels from former Eastern Bloc countries.

More official denials and silence

The government of Croatia and the Pentagon did not respond to journalist requests for a comment on use of Rijeka-Krk Airport as a hub for military flights. Croatia's Ministry of Defence, Foreign Affairs and aviation authority did not respond, and the Ministry of Trade said the information was confidential. The head of air traffic at Rijeka-Krk Airport, Damir Ružić, gave ambiguous statements: "There are reasons why those planes are coming here, airport is not the one who is dragging them here."

Following the publication of an investigation by the BIRN, the OCCRP and Süddeutsche Zeitung in September, a public prosecutor in Germany has announced that he will carry out a preliminary investigation into whether the Pentagon broke the law by sending weapons to Syrian rebels through its German airbases without the correct documentation.

German law, based on the EU's general position on arms exports, dictates that licences to transport weapons must be accompanied by end user certificates which state the final destination of the shipment and who will be using the equipment. Investigative journalists asked officials in Zagreb why Croatia was willing to accept Syria-bound weapons that the Germans had refused, despite the fact both capitals followed the same EU-wide regulations, but received no answer.

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.