EDINBURGH, Scotland -- The WikiLeaks whistleblower website has confirmed as true a Sunday Herald investigation that found dozens of Russian-made tanks aboard a ship hijacked by Somali pirates were destined for clandestine delivery to the army of the autonomous Government of South Sudan.
Having taken the Ukrainian ship, the MV Faina, in September 2008, the pirates were shocked to find aboard 33 Russian-made T-72 tanks, 42 anti-aircraft guns and more than 800 tonnes of ammunition.
The Kenyan government quickly condemned the hijacking of the Faina, saying that its destination was the port of Mombasa and that the tanks had been bought for use by the Kenyan Army.
A Sunday Herald investigation found that there were very few good guys in the saga. The tanks, in addition to at least 67 previously shipped, were in fact destined for delivery to the Government of South Sudan, which put it in breach of Sudan’s 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended a 21-year civil war between north and south in which more than 2 million people died.
Classified US State Department cables published by WikiLeaks show not only that the Sunday Herald’s information was right as regards the tanks’ actual destination, but that Washington had encouraged the delivery of weapons to South Sudan even though it was the main guarantor of the peace agreement.
The WikiLeaks revelations about US-approved weapons deliveries come at one of the most delicate times in the history of Sudan.
The nation, Africa’s largest, is on the verge of splitting in two. Black African Southern Sudanese, mainly animists and Christians, are scheduled to vote on January 9 in a referendum for their independence from northern Sudan, which is dominated by Muslim Arabs.
If things go wrong, world governments fear Sudan could once more tip over into civil war.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has described the situation in advance of the historic referendum as “a ticking time bomb”.
The WikiLeaks documents show that an extraordinary row broke out between the United States government and the governments of Kenya and Ukraine following the hijacking of the Faina and the revelation of the secret weapons shipment.
Despite its secret approval of previous weapons deliveries via Kenya to South Sudan, it appears that the Washington administration began to lose its nerve as the affair became public and threatened “sweeping sanctions” against both Kenya and Ukraine, asserting that the tank deliveries were illegal.
The Kenyans were deeply angered and “very confused” by the threats from President Barack Obama’s administration, according to the leaked State Department cables, “since the past transfers had been undertaken in consultation with the United States.”
The American ambassador to Kenya, Michael Ranneberger, was given the impossible task of reprimanding the Kenyans despite the fact that the weapons deliveries were carried out with the full knowledge of Washington.
The cables said the American flip-flop “led to a commotion on the Ukrainian side”.
In a story worthy of John Le Carré, the Sunday Herald’s investigation, showed that the owner of the Faina – which had at least three previous names and was registered in Belize – is a Ukraine-based Israeli named Vadim Alperin, who has links to Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, and Mossad agents front companies in Kenya.
Alperin and the chief of Ukraine’s foreign intelligence service, Mykola Malomuzh, together met the Faina when it arrived in Mombasa after the United States 5th Fleet surrounded the vessel and the pirates settled for a minimal $2 million ransom, paid in dollar bills and parachuted on to the Faina’s deck from a light aircraft.
The cables indicate that the first US-approved delivery of Russian tanks via Ukraine and Kenya to South Sudan took place in 2007.
Before the Faina was hijacked, at least 67 T-72s had already been delivered to the South Sudan government in Juba.
In the northern city of Khartoum, capital of united Sudan, Ghazi Salah al-Din al-Atabani, one of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir’s top advisers, chuckled as he told a correspondent from the New York Times: “We knew it [American involvement in the delivery of tanks to the South] – yeah, we knew it.”
The Sunday Herald also revealed that Khartoum had kept quiet about South Sudan’s armaments acquisitions because it was itself in breach of an international arms embargo in relation to the separate conflict in the western province of Darfur, for which President al-Bashir has been indicted for genocide by The Hague-based International Criminal Court.
Given its problems with Darfur and the ICC, it was in the interests of the al-Bashir government to stay silent.
The leaked cables show the United States’ top diplomat in Khartoum, Alberto Fernandez, advising Washington that in the case of any future clandestine tank deliveries to South Sudan it should avoid a repeat hijacking by Somali pirates and “the attention it has drawn.”
The tanks from the Faina remain parked in a Kenyan army barracks near Nairobi.