Back in December 1995, when a huge load of arms was air-dropped over Purulia district of West Bengal, it created a sensation that reverberated in the Indian media for months. Speculation was rife about who the weapons were meant for and theories floated about who could be seeking to “destabilise” India with the arms. Nothing as dramatic as that, says Subir Bhaumik, whose research into the antecedents of the prime accused in the affair, Jan Christien Neilson alias Kim Davy, has led to a story that seems straight out of Frederick Forsyth´s Dogs of War.
Weapons, insurgents, minerals —Jan Christien Neilson loves dealing in them, or with them. Neilson hails from Denmark, has more than 40 passports and as many aliases, and is believed to be the mastermind behind the armsdrop at Purulia. He speaks more than a dozen languages, including a smattering of Hindustani, and, according to his former accomplice Peter Bleach, “can manage to secure upto half a million dollars within a few hours over couple of telephone calls”.
Even as Bleach, a former British army officer-turned-arms dealer, and the five members of the Latvian aircrew who manned the plane that made the drop were awarded life sentences in the Purulia case by the Calcutta city civil court in early Feb ruary, Neilson, also known as Kim Davy (in Asia) and Peter Johnson (in Africa) remained elusive —at least for the Indian government. Some newspaper reports suggested he might surrender to a court in Denmark, but Bleach dismissed the idea contemptuously. “He is bigtime and there´s no way he will give up so easily,” said he, soon after his sentencing.
Bleach is right. According to his (Bleach´s) friend and one-time British MP Sir Teddy Taylor, Neilson is often seen in the company of British and American intelligence officers and diplomats in Nairobi, from where they monitor and support the covert war against Khartoum. Taylor hints that the two Western powers “may indeed be protecting Neilson”.
Indeed, Neilson has been seen several times in Hotel Sarina and Hotel Safari Club in Nairobi, since he mysteriously escaped from Bombay airport on the night of 21 December 1995, four days after the drop, leaving behind Bleach and the five Latvian crewmen to be nabbed by the Indian police. In fact, the Ananda Marg sect, which was initially blamed for being the possible end-user of the weapons dropped at Purulia but which was given a clean chit by the civil court, has demanded a full-fledged judicial enquiry into how Davy managed to slip away from the Bombay airport that night. Ananda Marg spokes Bhaveshananda Avadhuta said: “We have good reasons to believe Davy was escorted away by an Indian intelligence official called Dasan.” This is difficult to establish, but it is something that cannot be ruled out.
(The AN-26 had begun its flight from Borgas in Bulgaria where the arms were loaded, and stopped over at Ispahan in Iran before proceeding to Karachi, Varanasi and Calcutta. After the drop was made, it went to Phuket in Thailand. The return journey was scheduled by way of Calcutta, but according to Bleach, powerful tailwinds forced it on to Madras. Between Madras and Bombay, an air traffic controller detected that Neilson´s plane was flying without route clearance asked it to land.)
This correspondent has been checking up on Neilson´s East African connections for the last several years. What has been found is revealing. The company that the slightly-built Dane with fiery eyes keeps in Nairobi could be from British or American intelligence. But another man who has been seen with him has now been identified— John Garang, the commander-in-chief of the Sudanese Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA), a group of Christian rebels in south Sudan who have fought the successive Marxist and Islamic regimes in Khartoum with some success over the years.
The US has not made it a secret that it supplies weapons to the SPLA. It considered the previous Sudanese government led by Jaffar Nimiery as too pro-Soviet, and the present regime too Islamicist (and lately, a bit too pally with its bete noire, Osama Bin Laden). That the CIA had used Neilson to courier weapons to Garang´s rebel army for years is now becoming known. Neilson used Soviet-made transport aircraft to carry huge consignments of weapons to the SPLA, but without need for airdrops a la Purulia since the SPLA controls large chunks of territory in southern Sudan and the weapon-carrying planes can easily land there.
But Neilson is not only an arms dealer. He also deals in minerals — gold and precious stones. This correspondent now has substantial information about how Neilson´s, or rather, since this is Africa, Johnson´s Howerstock International Trading Ltd, commissioned, in early 1995, a Filipino geological consultant, Declaro Zafra and Associates, to survey the rich gold deposits in the Kapoeta county of southern Sudan controlled by the SPLA. Declaro Zafra´s final report, submitted to Howerstock in October 1995, indicates that southern Sudan is sitting on a huge deposit of alluvial/lode gold, which, if mined, “will have a definite impact on the global bullion market”.
With the end of the Cold War, the US made it clear to many of its former allies —rebel forces, unpopular dictators, military regimes and dissident groups —that they would have to fend for themselves. Some groups like the SPLA continued to receive some arms supplies, but Garang realised he would soon be on his own. One way to finance the SPLA´s operations was to begin mining the gold. But neither the US nor any other country with the right technology, not even mining conglomerates like Lorwho or De Beers, could be seen to be dealing with an insurgent group like the SPLA as that would only provide the Sudanese government, with the help of other Islamic countries, an excuse to go on a diplomatic offensive. It was here that Howerstock served as a useful front in dealing with the SPLA and securing the gold deposit.
Sources in the global mining world say Howerstock or any of the other companies owned by Peter Johnson or any of the other aliases used by Neilson, had no presence in the mining world before they entered Sudan. Their financial standing was also believed to be insignificant—and certainly not good enough to justify involvement in the gold recovery operations in southern Sudan. The sources believe that Howerstock is being funded by ” one of three global giants dealing in gold, diamond and precious stones” — although they would not specify which one.
Howerstock, as a front, operates the mines, recovers the gold and brings it out of south Sudan through Kenya. The Kenyan government has even provided an assay certificate (one that vouches for the quality of an ore or metal) to legitimise these shipments. The initial flux of Sudanese gold towards the end of 1999 even brought down prices in the international market, but prices stabilised once it became known that it would still take a few years to set up the mining infrastructure in south Sudan, in view of the risks involved.
Which brings us to the key question, whether a mineral-weaponsinsurgency triangle exists in South Asia for Neilson to get involved in. Purulia, where the weapons were dropped, does sit on a coal belt, and iron ore and other heavy mineral deposits are not far away in Bihar. But no gold or precious stones. Nor is there an armed insurgency active.
The only region that would fit the southern Sudanese scenario in this part of the world is the Kachin region in north Burma. The Kachin state, bordering China´s Yunnan province and India´s Arunachal Pradesh state, has a powerful rebel army — four brigades, or 8000 men in all. The Kachin Independence Army (KIA), formed in 1961, has fought Burmese troops fiercely for decades and maintains control over much of the Kachin region, particularly the northern Kachin part bordering India and China.
The rich jade mines of Hpakam and Longkin are located in that area, and the Kachins do make some money from jade. The area also has ruby and sapphires. But what is less known is that the Kachin area reportedly has huge gold deposits. These deposits have never been tapped due to the ongoing insurgency, and neither do the Kachin rebels have the wherewithal to handle mining operations in a big way on their own.
In the early 1990s, boosted by receipt of substantial military hardware from China, the Burmese army launched a fierce offensive against the rebels. Pressed hard and without a steady supply of arms and ammunition, the Kachins entered into a cease-fire agreement with Rangoon, hoping it would herald negotiations on a possible future autonomy package. By end-1995, however, it became clear that the Burmese military junta was in no mood for compromise. The Kachins were upset, and the new KIA chief Malizup Zau Mai went looking for allies and weapons.
It so happened that there was a convergence of both India´s and the West´s interests in helping the KIA at that time. For the West, particularly the US, the Kachins were devout Christians and confirmed anticommunists, and right there in the soft underbelly of China below its south-western Yunnan province. From New Delhi´s point of view, bringing the KIA into its fold was a key strategic objective since the militant outfit had been supplying weapons and provided training to all Northeast Indian rebels since the Chinese officially stopped doing so in 1978. This correspondent has learnt that the Indian intelligence agency, RAW, established close relations with the KIA and even allowed them sanctuary facilities in the eastern part of Arunachal Pradesh. The quid pro quo was that the KIA would never again arm or train rebels from the Northeast or allow these groups access through their territory to China. But India stopped short of direct support the KIA since it was also trying cultivate the Burmese junta.
Thus it could well be that a ing giant, perhaps the same one volved in south Sudan, got interested in the gold and precious stones of Kachin. But again, winning over the KIA to secure mining rights or exploratory surveys, would mean supplying them with weapons. Landlocked and with a large rebel army to supply, the Kachins were the ideal candidate to take an airdrop of the kind of weapons that came down at Purulia. The Ananda Marg may be in the business of securing a few revolvers, even rifles, but only an outfit like the KIA, which takes on the Burmese army in set-piece battles, would anti-tank weapons.
Completing the jigsaw
Peter Bleach now admits that the weapons were to be dropped “much further east”. But he would not reveal more, except that Neilson tried desperately to secure landing permission at Dhaka, because he was “trying to set up a regular air freight company operating out of there”. Bleach told this correspondent that Neilson had sent his side-kick Peter Haestrup to “buy off the guys at Dhaka” with USD 50,000 but that did not work, unlike in Varanasi “where the guys had been managed”. That explains why a cargo plane loaded with weapons would not be checked at Varanasi or even asked to produce the mandatory cargo manifest. And why would one need landing permission so desperately at Dhaka unless the aircraft was planning to make a drop further east? Flying out of Dhaka would make it much easier to reach the Kachin hills.
But if the target of the drop was in Kachin, or a safe zone in ^Arunachal Pradesh temporarily *nade available to the KIA by the Indians, why would the weapons land in Purulia in far off West Bengal? Bleach seems to have the answer. He said that when parachutes came on board at Karachi, the Latvians picked up a fight with Neilson because they had all along been told that the plane was carrying “technical equipment” to Bangladesh. During the rest of the flight, Neilson had to brandish a loaded AK-56 rifle to keep the Latvians under control, but Bleach said “they were really angry and did everything to mess up the drop”.
That they did, said Bleach, by confusing Neilson on the “drop zone parameters”. After taking off from Varanasi at 8 in the evening, the plane flew east and as it came into Calcutta airspace, the crew told the air traffic control that they would not land, but would continue to Rangoon. But since Rangoon refused landing permission, the plane had to return to Calcutta. Through all this Neilson did not know what was happening, but as they were in the air for such a long time, when they were over Purulia, Neilson thought they were right above the drop zone. The Latvians knew they were not, but nevertheless they told Neilson to go ahead with the drop. Later, when they reached Phuket in Thailand, and Neilson discovered they had got it wrong, he was furious, and did not allow the pilots and Bleach to leave, and decided to go back to Bulgaria to procure a fresh consignment. We know what happened next.
Only the involvement of a major Western power —or a mining giant backed by it—could ensure that the AN-26 got away easily at both Pakistani and Indian airports. That would explain a lot of the rest in the mystery as to how a plane loaded with weapons could get away at Varanasi without submitting the cargo manifests; why Davy and Bleach came back a second time into Indian airspace merely four days after the bungled Purulia armsdrop; how the plane could stray off the approved flight path without being detected by any one of the four military radars in West Bengal; and, finally, how Davy got away so easily in Bombay.
Bleach has admitted that the drop was not meant for the Ananda Marg. Neilson, like many Westerners in their teens flirting with esoteric Oriental sects, had taken to the Ananda Marg in the 1970s, but that was long over. The operator that he was, however, he had retained some links with the avadhuts. So when the air traffic controllers asked the AN26 to land at Bombay, Neilson burnt all his papers, much to the consternation of the Latvian crew. But carefully left behind in the cockpit was one of his old photographs with some Ananda Marg avadhuts, perhaps to confuse investigators.
The Indians might have merely looked the other way as the AN-26 proceeded towards its target drop zone, but the angry Latvians, slighted and threatened by Neilson, messed up his grand design of starting a new freight service (a euphemism for a new supply route of weapons for the Kachin which could then have gone anywhere, even to dissidents inside China). The CIA had set up similar ´freight´ companies in Indo-China to supply Meo and other ethnic guerrillas in the past. It is therefore that only if the drop zone was Kachin, will all the elements of the Purulia jigsaw fall into place.
It is now clear that the Indians knew all along what was going on, and the sentencing of Bleach and the Latvians may only be a case of running for cover. In all this, it is the Latvian crew who have suffered the worst. Seemingly through no deliberate fault of theirs, they are now undergoing life sentences. But it is doubtful if they will serve out their terms. Since four of the Latvians are Russian citizens and the fifth´s citizenship is under consideration, the Russian press has begun pleading for a softening of their sentence, if not release itself. Officially, too, Russia has indicated that it will raise the matter with India when the speaker of the Russian parliament leads a delegation to India. Given the ´special relationship´ that exists between the two countries, there is a distinct possibility that the Lativans will be granted a presidential pardon in the not-too-distant future.