MIDDLE EASTERN countries secretly armed and supported suspected Al-Qaeda recruits in the failed state of Somalia in a direct challenge to western interests in east Africa, according to a United Nations report.
Hundreds of Islamist fighters were flown, with Eritrean assistance, from Somalia to Syria and Libya for military training. Others were taken to Lebanon to fight with Hezbollah, the report to the UN security council has revealed.
UN investigators also detailed military aid given to the Islamists by Saudi Arabia and Egypt, Arab states friendly to the West. Iran also supplied 125 shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles, 80 of which arrived by sea in dhows and the rest by air.
A clandestine operation to smuggle the fighters out of Somalia began in July last year.
In an interview, Evgueny Zakharov, the owner of Aerolift, an airline with a fleet of ageing Antonov and Ilyushin transport aircraft, based in Johannesburg but registered in the British Virgin Islands, said: â€œWe transported lots of men in uniform â€” Arabian men with masks.
â€œThey were disciplined men and although none of them had rank badges there were obviously people in charge. They got on the aircraft as if they had done it many times before.â€
Zakharov said his involvement began after he was approached by a General Tambi of the Eritrean Peopleâ€™s Defence Forces. Eritrea, a neighbour of Somalia in the volatile Horn of Africa, was a major supporter of the Islamists.
Tambi offered to buy Zakharovâ€™s Ilyushin 76 transport aircraft carrying the Kazakhstan registration number UN 76496 for $1.5m (Â£770,000), even though the normal price for an aircraft of that vintage and condition is just $1m.
Zakharov went ahead despite the unusual contract conditions that stipulated secrecy. He insisted the contract should specify that the new owners were not to use the aircraft to make arms flights.
However, he said last week that the Ilyushin made three sanctions-busting arms flights to Somalia from the Eritrean port of Massawa, bringing out the masked men on the return legs. â€œI do not know who they were but you can draw your own conclusions,â€ he said.
Zakharovâ€™s revelations came as western security services continued their investigation into foreigners suspected of fighting on behalf of Islamic forces in Somalia and of joining Al-Qaeda last year. Among them are British, American and French Muslims.
Significant numbers of foreigners went to Somalia, western intelligence officials have found, after the radical Islamic Courts Union (ICU) movement seized power from a weak UNbacked government, established links with Al-Qaeda and allowed Somalia to be used as an Al-Qaeda terrorist training ground like Afghanistan under Taliban rule.
In December, invading Ethiopian troops took the capital Mogadishu from the ICU and restored the internationally recognised government, routing the Islamists and scattering the foreigners and Al-Qaeda fighters.
But violence continues to plague the weak and fractured country and there are fears of an Islamist resurgence unless African Union peacekeepers are rapidly deployed.
Last week four British Muslims who had been in Somalia under the radical militia and then crossed the border into Kenya were briefly held under the Terrorism Act on their return to Britain.
An American who was also arrested in Kenya and then deported was charged in Texas with teaming up with Al-Qaeda. He told FBI officers who interrogated him that he had spent time with an Al-Qaeda bomb maker in Somalia being trained in assembly techniques.
The UN report also described Iranian attempts to obtain Somali uranium. Somalia is reported to have 6,600 tons of recoverable uranium but the mines have never been exploited because of poor security.
In addition, Libya provided $1m to finance future training missions and pay salaries. Surface-to-air missiles supplied by Iran are of the type Al-Qaeda used to try to bring down an Israeli charter flight over Kenya in 2002. The missiles are still at large.
Zakharov believes that one of the reasons the Eritreans wanted to use the Ilyushin in the clandestine operations was because the freighterâ€™s registration began with the letters UN and therefore might have been mistaken for a United Nations aircraft.
When Zakharov discovered the Eritreansâ€™ real use of the plane was for arms shipments and for flying the masked men from Somalia, he cancelled the contract. Zakharov said he first grew suspicious when he found that the seven-man crew were each being paid Â£2,500 bonuses for every flight.
Contacted last week, Tambi denied all knowledge of the deal. However, The Sunday Times has a copy of the contract signed in Moscow and Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, between Aerolift and Eriko Enterprise of Asmara on July 21.
The first sanctions-busting arms flight landed at Mogadishu on July 26 and was followed by three arms shipments â€” a total of some 140 tons â€” over the next three days.