Mystery as plane carrying Russian arms smugglers crashes in Congo

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The Democratic Republic of Congo has one of the world’s worst aviation safety records, so reports that an aircraft had tumbled into a remote forest last week caused few international ripples. Since then, however, a deepening mystery over the nature of the cargo and the identity of those on board has left the Congolese government facing awkward questions.

The fate of the stricken plane, a mysterious Antonov-72 so far only identified by its former registration number, EK-72903, may also provide a glimpse into the murkier side of Russia’s attempts to reassert its influence in Africa. The details remain scant. Last Thursday, the plane crashed 59 minutes after taking off from the eastern city of Goma bound for the capital Kinshasa. None of the eight people on board survived, officials said.

The passengers were identified as the personal chauffeur of Felix Tshisekedi, Congo’s president, and three of his bodyguards. An armoured vehicle used by the president was also on board. A more troubling disclosure followed when two of the four-strong crew were identified. Vitaly Shumkov and Vladimir Sadovnichy, the plane’s pilots, were not only Russian nationals, they both appeared to have a background in gun running.

The plane, too, has a murky past. EK-72903 was once owned by an Armenian company whose proprietor has been linked to arms smuggling elsewhere in Africa. Whether the crew were somehow furthering Kremlin interests remains unknown. However, there is no secret that Russia hopes to regain the influence the Soviet Union once wielded in Africa by wooing its leaders with arms sales, private security and “political technologists” adept at winning elections.

Such attempts have often been linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close associate of Vladimir Putin who has been accused of masterminding attempts to interfere in the 2016 US presidential election. Mr Prigozhin allegedly had Congo in his sights after Russia announced in May that it was sending a team of army specialists to the country. Some Russia media outlets speculated that Mr Prigozhin, was on board the plane ahead of a meeting with President Tshisekedi. That is almost certainly untrue.

Slumming it on an Antonov is generally not Mr Progozhin’s style. “He wouldn’t get into a plane like that,” a Congolese government official said.  “This gentleman is an oligarch and if he travels then he travels on his own plane.” The official said that while Mr Prigozhin had not been scheduled to meet President Tshisekedi, other Russian government representatives had requested a meeting to discuss the upcoming summit.

It is unclear who was board. At least two people described as being “of eastern European origin” were also on the plane. They have not yet been identified, adding to the intrigue surrounding the flight. For the moment, whoever else was on board the plane remains unknown. With some sources saying there may have been 11 people rather than eight on board, UN officials were attempting to identify the remains of the dead — some of whom had been hastily buried — last night.

Even that might not put an end to the intrigue of what happened aboard EK-72903. Congo rarely gives up its mysteries. In 1961, a plane departing the country with then UN secretary general Dag Hammarskjöld on board crashed.  Three inquiries failed to determined the cause of the crash and Hammarskjöld’s death remains a mystery to this day.