A 25-year-old Taliban mullah met in a Sharjah hotel room with representatives of cargo firms owned by Bout and an Emirates businessman to obtain supplies for the fundamentalist Islamic movement, said a former official of Ariana Afghan Airlines, who was present at the meeting. Ariana is the national carrier of Afghanistan.
The mullah, Farid Ahmed, and other Taliban officials were seeking planes, tires, spare parts, engines, oil, hydraulic fluid--all essential for starting up their own air cargo operation. Ahmed was there representing the Taliban leadership, Ariana and Afghan aviation officials said.
They were soon scouring air cargo offices at the Sharjah airport, shopping openly because the Emirates was one of only three nations that recognized the Taliban. The other nations were Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
Sergei Mankhayev, general manager of Republic Air Co. in Sharjah, said a Taliban broker stunned him with a shopping list of "civilian aircraft and spare parts" and a second list of "weapons, ammunition and MIG combat aircraft," along with several dozen armament varieties, from grenade launchers to ground rockets. Mankhayev and other aviators said they refused the business.
But Ahmed found reliable suppliers in companies owned by Bout and the Emirates' Sheik Abdullah bin Zayed al Saqr al Nahyan, described by the U.N. as "a business associate of Victor Bout."
Between 1998 and 2001, Ahmed bought five planes from two companies, Vial and Air Cess, that authorities say were controlled by Bout. A Belgian official said Bout had power of attorney over Vial, a Delaware firm later cited in the Belgian arrest warrant for Bout.
Bout founded Air Cess in Liberia, say U.S. and U.N. officials. These officials say that at some point in the 1990s, Bout transferred its daily operations to his brother Sergei. A man contacted by The Times who identified himself as Sergei Bout declined to discuss details of his business.
Spurnov, the Russian air executive, said Victor Bout also provided pilots to the Taliban. Spurnov said about 50 of his pilots were hired by Bout companies in the late 1990s. Spurnov said some told him of repeated runs hauling green crates, standard containers for Eastern European-made ammunition and weapons, into Afghanistan. The flights, he said, continued even after 1995, when Russian aviation companies were notified by their government that they could no longer fly into Taliban-controlled territory. But the rule didn't apply to Bout because his companies were licensed in Sharjah.
Five more planes were sold to the Taliban by Flying Dolphin and Santa Cruz Imperial, which were owned by Bin Zayed, a former Emirates ambassador to Washington. Santa Cruz Imperial has been accused by the U.N. of trafficking arms to Angola.
The sheik angrily insisted in an interview that "he had no clue" why Afghan records detail sales of five of his Antonovs to the Taliban. He said he knew Ahmed and Bout but never worked with them. He said his former "Russian partners" owned the planes. He said he parted with the men five years ago, but he would not name them.
Ahmed, working in the same cargo terminal as Bout's Air Cess, remained a visible figure in Sharjah until shortly after the Taliban's collapse last November.
He had little to say when reached by The Times last month at a Dubai phone number.
"I am not Taliban," he said, adding that "the Russian companies helped us, yes, but only in fixing the planes." And, "I have nothing to do with guns."
He then turned the phone over to a companion who insisted, in quick succession, that Ahmed was unavailable, living in Sharjah, in Kabul--and, finally, unknown to him altogether.
THE TALIBAN AIRLIFT
Planes Had Key Role in Arming the Movement
Five of the planes sold to the Taliban--all Antonov 12s--became important tools in the covert arming of the movement's forces.
"It was special aircraft," said an Afghan air force brigadier who recalled watching the planes in action. And their purpose "was secret," he added.
The Antonov-12s had been registered as civilian planes but were in reality the property of the Taliban air force. As they took custody of the Antonov-12s, Taliban officials ordered some of the planes camouflaged in the colors of Ariana Airlines.
The Taliban's new acquisitions flew in tons of heavy artillery and assault rifles, said the brigadier, a senior military intelligence official who served with the Taliban until he was dismissed in a purge in 2000.
"They directly brought the military equipment to Kabul and Kandahar," he said.
On several occasions, the brigadier said, he watched the Antonov-12s being unloaded at an air base in Kabul, the capital. He said he saw heavy artillery, Kalashnikovs, aerial bombs and Russian BM-21 Hurricane rocket batteries.
A U.S. defense official said that American forces have since retrieved BM-21s from Taliban and Al Qaeda storehouses in Afghanistan and are working to trace their provenance.