Mystery Cargo: Suspicions Of Smuggling Swirl Around Airline Tragedy In Kyrgyzstan
Strewn among the aircraft wreckage and obliterated homes outside Kyrgyzstan’s capital lie the charred remnants of iPhones, luxury cigarette lighters, and other electronic gadgets disgorged when a Turkish cargo plane slammed into a village near Manas International Airport.
The crash of the MyCargo 747-400 in dense early morning fog on January 16 killed four crew members and 35 villagers in Dacha-Suu, nearly half of them children.
But it also set off a storm of inquiry, fueled by contradictory statements from the Istanbul-based flight operator, into suspicions that some of the cargo was part of an illegal scheme to line officials’ pockets or to feed the gray market in this fledgling democracy of 6 million people.
“Some goods found at the crash site deepen our suspicions,” Omurbek Tekebaev, a veteran lawmaker and deputy chairman of a parliamentary commission looking into the incident, told RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service in late January.
He added that “there is a basis to suspect that there is systematic smuggling going on at [Manas] airport” and that the commission expected to deliver its conclusions in late February.
The Kyrgyz parliament formed the 11-member commission, representing six parties, to clarify the ownership of the cargo and its planned destination. One of the lawmakers’ central questions is whether the pilots were stopping in Bishkek simply to refuel the four-engine jet or were planning to unload some of its 86 tons of goods.
En route from Hong Kong to Istanbul via Bishkek, the plane was descending toward Manas when it slammed into a former vacation community that now houses permanent residents.
Eyewitnesses told RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service that looting broke out almost as soon as police and emergency workers arrived at the crash scene, with even first responders hauling off as many of the undamaged smartphones and other electronic devices as they could carry.
“One policeman took off his shirt and filled it with mobile phones,” a young boy said.
Tekebaev, who heads the opposition Ata Meken (Fatherland) party, suggested that key sources for the investigation were stonewalling.
“First of all, the information about the crashed plane provided by the Kyrgyz authorities and the Turkish air company” — a reference to ACT Airlines, which operates as MyCargo Airlines –“is contradictory,” he said. “Their statements are being changed accordingly to fit the situation.”
Tekebaev also criticized airport officials to whom the commission had turned for information.
“We have seen that authorities [at Manas airport], especially officials of the aviation services, have no desire to cooperate with us,” he said. “Some of them demonstratively refused to do it.”
Busra Goksay, an assistant manager at ACT Airlines, which owns the ill-fated aircraft, told RFE/RL from Istanbul on January 18, two days after the crash, that the plane was landing in Bishkek to unload cargo.
An ACT Airlines press release on January 19 said the plane had enough fuel when it left Hong Kong to fly nonstop to Istanbul.
But when Hamza Tiglay, deputy director-general of MyCargo Airlines, appeared in Bishkek on January 19 to record a video for Kyrgyzstan’s Emergency Situations Ministry that was distributed to the media, he repeatedly said that the flight was due to refuel at Manas and change pilots but was not scheduled to unload cargo.
“We land in Bishkek exclusively for refueling and crew changes,” he said.
Airport officials have gone on the record to say the same thing — that the plane was only going to refuel in Bishkek — yet they have declined to provide flight records or other documents to back that claim. They have denied access to employees who might confirm that version of events.
They didn’t provide any documents. I think perhaps they need some time to create some ‘official’ papers or to eliminate some information.”
— Omurbek Tekebaev, veteran Kyrgyz lawmaker
The parliamentary commission has requested information from airport officials about MyCargo’s 51 previous flights from Hong Kong to Manas.
“They didn’t provide any documents,” Tekebaev said. “I think perhaps they need some time to create some ‘official’ papers or to eliminate some information.”
Emergency Situations Minister Kubatbek Boronov has said the cargo was not intended for delivery in Kyrgyzstan, and the Transport Ministry added in a statement that the plane was stopping to change pilots.
A Turkish MyCargo pilot, Nihat Yilmaz, who has flown the Hong Kong-to-Istanbul route, echoed those statements to RFE/RL.
Donald Knutson, an international aviation expert, told RFE/RL that the Boeing that crashed in Kyrgyzstan could easily fly 9,000 kilometers with a full payload without refueling. The flight between Hong Kong and Istanbul is around 8,000 kilometers, and 86 tons would represent only around 75 percent of a 747-400’s payload capacity.
MyCargo received a license in September to land in Bishkek for technical reasons, according to Transport Minister Jamshitbek Kalilov, but is not allowed to make commercial stops in which it would deliver or pick up goods.
But Tekebaev noted the discovery of printed materials at the crash scene that were printed in Kyrgyz and Russian, Kyrgyzstan’s official languages — “clearly oriented toward the Kyrgyz market — [they] create big suspicions.”
An RFE/RL correspondent at the crash site confirmed seeing instruction manuals printed in Kyrgyz among the debris.
President Almazbek Atambaev’s failure to visit the site of the tragedy or meet with survivors for a full 10 days led to criticism and speculation about unacknowledged official involvement with the cargo.
Atambaev was ending a combined official and private visit to China and flew home to Kyrgyzstan in the hours before the MyCargo crash. His plane was reportedly diverted to Issyk-Kul to wait for the weather around Bishkek to clear before he flew on to the capital.
A presidential spokesman, Almaz Usenov, told RFE/RL that Atambaev had “nothing to do with the cargo” on the Turkish plane.
“There are reasons to be doubtful about the official information” provided by airport and government officials.
— Janar Akaev, parliamentary investigative commission
A clue to the cargo mystery emerged on January 27, when international transport firm Global Link Logistics said it was expecting a MyCargo plane coming from Hong Kong to arrive at Manas airport.
Spokeswoman Anna Nedugova told RFE/RL that Global Link Logistics was hired by JTI Kazakhstan to process the goods from the MyCargo plane and deliver them to “the door of the recipient,” JTI Kazakhstan, in Kyrgyzstan. She said JTI Kazakhstan had told Global Link Logistics on January 12 that the cargo would arrive at Manas by January 20.
Nedugova’s assertions suggest airport representatives and government officials were unaware that MyCargo was going to unload goods at Manas airport or knew about it but tried to avoid disclosing that fact.
“There are reasons to be doubtful about the official information” provided by airport and government officials, Janar Akaev, another member of the parliamentary investigative commission, told RFE/RL.
Tekebaev said lawmakers were still undecided as to “whether or not we believe there are smuggling or corruption schemes at the airport.”
He added: “We will investigate not only the Hong Kong-Bishkek-Istanbul flight, [but] we will investigate how many cargo flights operate in total and how much cargo has been transported to the country or gone through Kyrgyzstan on other flights as well.”
Tekebaev said the parliamentary commission is continuing its investigation and expects to issue a final report in February.
In October, 45 tons of smuggled goods, including iPhones and other electronic devices, were found on two trucks leaving Manas airport. There have been no arrests in that case.
Kyrgyzstan, which joined the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union in 2015, is plagued by large-scale smuggling and other forms of corruption.
The country slipped in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index last year to 136, from 123 on the world list in 2015.
Copyright (c) 2015. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036.