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Arms transport probe zeros in on Pa. store

Times Staff Writer

A sporting goods store in a small northern Pennsylvania town is the unlikely focus of a federal investigation into the suspected reemergence of the global arms transport network controlled by Russian businessman Victor Bout.

Federal officials said this week that a recent search of the store near Wilkes-Barre, Pa., sought to learn whether a Bulgarian firm in Bout’s business empire was being used to purchase restricted paramilitary items for a company tied to Russia’s intelligence agency.

According to a federal affidavit, the equipment allegedly sold included telescopic rifle scopes, binoculars and optics that can only be exported under authorization by the State Department.

The search of D&R; Sports Center in Nanticoke, Pa., coincided with a new effort by U.S. Treasury officials to broaden stiff financial sanctions against Bout and his worldwide organization. In late October, under an order signed by President Bush, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control banned all U.S. firms from doing business with Bout because of the Russian’s history of arms dealing in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

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Bout, several associates and 30 companies were already covered by a similar ban and a Treasury assets freeze that was ordered in 2004 and expanded in 2005 because of his financial dealings with deposed Liberian President Charles Taylor.

Heading a private air fleet of several dozen cargo planes and commercial airliners, Bout is considered to be the world’s largest transporter of contraband weapons. He has a documented history of supplying arms and other cargo to any side in any conflict for the right price.

His planes have been linked to weapons deliveries to warlords in Africa and the Taliban in Afghanistan, and they later carried reconstruction supplies for the U.S. military and private contractors in Iraq.

Over the years, the Russian businessman has been rarely accessible to Western media. Bout’s Moscow attorney, Victor Burobin, did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment. But this month, Bout emerged from seclusion to blast the latest American sanctions against him.

“That’s not the first time America is freezing or blocking so-called assets, although I don’t have any assets in the U.S.,” Bout said on the Moscow news channel, Russia Today. “Nevertheless, every time it is the same story, the same repetition. I can even call it a witch hunt.”

John Hageman, a special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Philadelphia, confirmed this week that firearms agents, after obtaining a federal search warrant, inspected documents at the Nanticoke sporting goods outlet Nov. 8.

Hageman would not provide details about the investigation or discuss Bout’s alleged role. But an unsealed federal warrant and an accompanying affidavit indicated that ATF investigators sought shipping and wire transfer documents, phone records, government licenses, and computer and other electronic files from the Nanticoke store and a sister outlet in Bloomsburg, Pa.

According to an affidavit prepared by firearms agents Mitchell A. Worley and Michael A. Culp, investigators are looking into allegations that D&R; Sports Center “illegally shipped restricted items to Russia, Kuwait, Germany and Japan in violation of United States export laws.” D&R; reaped about $248,000 for the sales, the federal agents said.

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The investigation centers on paramilitary equipment purchases made from D&R; in early 2005 by Tactica Ltd., a Moscow firm that was described by investigators as “a member of the ‘Vympel Group,’ which is a known identifier for an elite counter-terrorism unit that is controlled by the Russian Federal Security Service [formerly the KGB].”

Mark Komoroski, who owns D&R; with his brother Theodore, acknowledged this week that his outlet had sold a variety of gun sights and other items to Tactica, and that he was aware of Tactica’s “contract with the Russian special forces.” But Komoroski denied that his store had broken any U.S. export laws. Tactica “never got anything that wasn’t State Department licensed,” Komoroski said.

Federal agents found that at least $60,000 that paid for Tactica’s purchases had come from wire transfers sent in February and March 2005 by Rockman Ltd., a firm based in Sofia, Bulgaria. Rockman has been identified by United Nations investigators as a holding company owned by Bout’s brother Sergei, a key associate in the Russian’s arms operation.

According to the federal agents, an additional $44,000 for Tactica’s equipment was routed in wire transfers from Haji Ibrahim, a Pakistani man accused on federal charges of heroin trafficking. The affidavit does not detail any connection between Ibrahim and Bout’s organization.

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But a U.S. official familiar with the inner workings of the Bout organization said there was no doubt that Rockman was part of Bout’s worldwide network. “Sergei and Victor’s companies are all under the same umbrella,” the official said.

Over the years, according to a series of U.N. reports, Bout-owned planes were loaded up with weapons at the Bulgarian arms depots at Burgas and flown to several African nations in violation of international arms embargos.

In April 2005, as part of the sweeping U.S. sanctions against Bout, Treasury officials banned any American firm from doing business with either Sergei Bout or Rockman Ltd.

The wire transfers showing an alleged financial relationship between Bout’s organization and Russian intelligence marks the first time that the U.S. has found contemporary evidence that the two entities work in concert.

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Western intelligence officials have long suspected that Bout’s entry into the air transport business and contraband arms trade in the early 1990s was staked either by the KGB or GRU, Russia’s military intelligence wing.

After living abroad for more than a decade, Bout retreated to Moscow in 2002 after Belgian and Interpol officials issued an international warrant for his arrest on money-laundering charges. Despite Interpol’s global law enforcement authority, Russian officials refused to extradite Bout, and Western officials complained that he had been given official protection. Officials at the Russian Embassy in Washington did not return calls this week for comment.

In the affidavit, the federal agents said they were concentrating on Bout’s involvement in the Tactica sales because he “and his numerous shell companies around Eastern Europe and the world were also identified as significant participants in providing weapons to the dictator Charles Taylor in Liberia, rebel groups in Rwanda and the Taliban, as well as subsequent war crimes that were committed by those regimes.”

The recent presidential order targeting Bout in Congo used similar strong language describing his illegal activities.

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Bout was one of “seven individuals that have destabilized the Congo by impeding disarmament activities, violating international laws involving the targeting of children or violating a United Nations arms embargo,” said State Department spokeswoman Nancy Beck.

In a 2002 article, The Times documented how Bout’s firms sold cargo planes and delivered arms to the Taliban. Even after the Sept. 11 attacks, Bout continued to prosper. A 2004 Times investigation revealed that his planes had flown hundreds of clandestine flights into Iraq, ferrying weapons, supplies and personnel for the U.S. military and private American contractors.

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steve.braun@latimes.com

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