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Vahe Sarukhanyan

Planes with Fake Armenian Registration: Making Money by Serving the DRC President and Army

Armenia has once again appeared in a UN Security Council report, and not in a good way.

In a June 2, 2020 report, Council experts report that planes flying with Armenian registration were providing services to the government forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), transporting weapons and ammunition and military personnel.

However, some of the planes in question have long since been removed (deregistered) from Armenia’s aircraft registry. Thus, the Armenian registration numbers appearing on the planes are forgeries.

Planes bearing Armenia registration served the Congolese army

Armed inter-ethnic clashes continue in the east of the DRC, a country which has seen its share of civil unrest. In 2003, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1493, which bars all countries from supplying arms to local and foreign armed groups operating in the eastern Congo. The embargo, however, does not apply to the country's government forces (FARDC) and the UN peacekeeping mission in the Congo (MONUSCO). However, the announcement of the embargo did not stop the entry of weapons into the tense eastern regions of the country - Kivu and Ituri. According to Resolution 1533, adopted in 2004, the Security Council established a Committee on Sanctions on the DRC, whose experts report on conflicts every year, based on which new resolutions and sanctions are adopted.

The report released by UN experts on June 2, summarizing their work for 2019, showed how foreign civil airlines support the DRC government.

According to the experts, six civilian cargo planes (five of which had Armenian and one Sudanese registration) have been transporting personnel and cargo for the Congolese Armed Forces since 2012. All six are linked to Vahram Simonyan, a man well-known to Armenian aviation enthusiasts. He was born in the village of Vahramaberd, in Armenia’s Shirak Province, but is now a Russian citizen.

Hetq has previously written about Simonyan's shady activities in Africa.

Hetq's source, a former UN Security Council expert, reported as early as 2016 that Simonyan was working in Kinshasa, the DRC capital, where he founded the South Airlines Co. SARL in 2015. Let’s recall that in Armenia, Vahram Simonyan had founded the following airlines: South Airlines (founded in 2000), V-Berd-Avia (2006) and Skiva Air (2011). All are currently temporarily closed. Simonyan has set up companies, with the names of these companies, in other countries - the Seychelles, UAE, British Virgin Islands - which have dealt with his various clients.

The Armenian companies were created for the sole purpose of portraying themselves as aircraft operators and registering planes in our country. However, it should be noted that South Airlines aircraft operator's certificate (AOC) expired in October 2016. That of V-Berd-Avia expired in August 2011 and Skiva Air’s in March 2017.

Simonyan's planes registered in Armenia were operated abroad, mainly in Africa. In 2016, our source reported that the DRC army used two of Simonyan's planes: an An-72 (Armenian registration: EK-72903) and an Il-76 (EK-76992). In 2016, we wrote that the EK-72903 was registered under the name of Armenian South Airlines, and the plane bearing the number EK-76992 had already been removed Armenia’s aircraft registry at the time.

The UN experts also discovered that three other planes were employed by Simonyan for the DRC army. Some of these aircraft bore fake Armenian registration on their fuselage.

The experts also noted that some of the crew members of Simonyan's planes were citizens of Russia and Ukraine. The authors of the report spoke with Simonyan, who said that he has been providing services to the DRC government army (FARDC) since 2012.

Simonyan and his partners violated Security Council resolutions

The experts have obtained contracts signed by South Airlines Co. (based in Sharjah, Vahram Simonyan owns it and serves as CEO) with Zaabu International, a company registered in the DRC capital.

It was via Zaabu that the Armenian aviator provided services to the Congolese army. In addition, Simonyan is a member of the board of this company.

However, it is important to note that, according to the report, Kinshasa based South Airlines Co. SARL and Zaabu International violated three UN Security Council DRC resolutions regarding the registration of aircraft and aircraft operator certificates, pilots' licenses and passenger transportation rules.

Now let's see how the planes registered in Armenia appeared in the DRC and were illegally operated while displaying the Armenian registration EK.

EK-72101. The designer had no information about the plane

This An-72-100 aircraft was registered in Armenia under the name of South Airlines. The plane was transported to the DRC in October 2012 due to a deal between Simonyan and Zaabu International. Prior to this, the plane hadn’t been removed from the Republic of Armenia (RA) Aircraft Registry, i.e. it was simply leased to the Congolese side and operated with Armenian documents.

Last year, we wrote that the EK-72101, used by the DRC army, made an emergency landing on November 1, 2013 in Kisangani on a flight between Goma and Kinshasa. The aircraft’s hydraulic system failed, and the plane skidded off the landing track and caught fire. The crew was not injured. Local radiookapi.net (MONUSCO radio) reported that there were 15 passengers on board, civilians and soldiers who were not injured. However, the plane was rendered unusable.

Referring to one of the aviation forums, we wrote that the EK-72101 was included in the "blacklist" of the Antonov Design Bureau (Ukraine), an outfit that designed the plane, and was not allowed to fly.

The Ukrainian company told UN experts that the plane was launched at Kharkiv State Aviation Enterprise in 1987, and in 2002 the Antonov company (formerly the design bureau) extended its flight time to 5,000 flight hours and 5,000 flights, which was valid until September 2003. After that, the plane had to undergo an overhaul. But the Ukrainian company said it hasn’t worked on this plane since 2003, nor has it assigned another service period for the plane. Thus, they are not aware of its technical condition, flight capability, operation and owners (see below).

It should be noted that, as a rule, the extension of an aircraft’s service period is carried out according to the design bureau’s guidelines (sometimes with its participation), and after the implementation of the relevant work, the bureau decides whether to extend the service period or not. But in the case of the EK-72101, Antonov was unaware of the future of this plane.

EK-72903. The Armenian registration on the crashed plane was illegal

In October 2012, another aircraft, an An-72 registered with the Armenian EK-72903, was leased to Zaabu International. The agreement was signed by V. Simonyan, who identified himself as the general director of the Armenian South Airlines, and Yves Lumambi Idi, general director of the DRC company. It is interesting that Simonyan, according to the RA State Registry, has never been the general director of South Airlines LLC registered in Yerevan. (Since 2006 its director has been Samvel Harutyunyan). But this is not the only noteworthy point.

Thus, even though the Armenian South Airlines acted as a lessor, the contract presented the bank details of its Sharjah branch, South Airlines Co. in the Sharjah Islamic Bank. Consequently, which we can assume that the money received from the lease went to Sharjah instead of Armenia. (see below)

At the same time, renting one hour of flight time was estimated at $1,650, not including taxes and fees. This then was Simonyan's net income. For the first month (70 flight hours) V. Simonyan received a $115,500 prepayment. The plane was operated in the DRC for seven years, until the fall of 2019. After signing a contract in October 2012, its validity period was extended to 2013, 2015, 2017 and 2018. It was supposed to operate until 2020, after the last extension, but it didn't work out: in 2019, the plane crashed.

It should be recalled that on October 10, 2019, this An-72 crashed into the forests of the central region of the DRC while flying to Kinshasa, west of the eastern city of Goma. The plane was carrying the armored vehicle of the president of the country to the capital. The crash killed four people, including four crew members (citizens of Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan), as well as four presidential employees who were accompanying the car.

But here is another important detail. This aircraft was removed from the RA Aircraft Registry in May 2016, which means that it should have no longer displayed the EK-72903 registration. In response to the experts' letter, Vahram Simonyan said that he had leased the plane, as well as three other aircraft (EK-32400, EK-72425, YI-BAT) to Zaabu International, which acted in the interests of the state. According to the Simonyan, the planes were used exclusively for the needs of the President of the Congo and the army (FARDC) and only within that country.

Simonyan noted that since aircraft used by the military, customs and police services are considered state-owned, and the operation of state-owned aircraft is regulated on a special and confidential basis controlled and maintained by the state, he cannot provide information requested by the experts. He added that the technical maintenance of the crashed plane was carried out by relevant specialists in accordance with issued rules. Simonyan also noted that the operator is responsible for all insurance matters related to passengers, cargo and third parties.

As we can see, there is no mention of the illegal registration of the Armenian EK-72903. Prior to Simonyan's answer, the RA Civil Aviation Committee responded to the UN experts' inquiry. The latter informed the experts, through the RA Permanent Representation to the UN, that this An-72 was registered in Armenia in April 2005. The owner was registered as South Airlines Co. (registered in the UAE), and the operator was registered as Armenian South Airlines. However, the airworthiness certificate of the aircraft was valid until February 2013, after which no update was made. In other words, the aircraft was not allowed to fly. In May 2016, it was removed (deregistered) from the Armenian Registry at the request of the owner. The Armenian side also stated that Simonyan had previously arrived in Armenia on Sharjah-Yerevan or Dubai-Yerevan flights and last left Armenia in December 2018.

The U.N. experts also petitioned Ukraine, the country where the EK-72903 was designed and manufactured, for information on the plane. According to the Ukrainian reply, the aircraft was produced in 1987 at the Kharkiv air plant.

The operational life of the plane, before the first overhaul was 5,000 flights, 5,000 flight hours or seven calendar years. If one of these was reached, the plane would have to be overhauled. The total operational life was 15,000 flights, 15,000 flight hours or 20 years. The Ukrainians said that after its production, the aircraft was operated by the Soviet and then Russian air forces. However, after 1997, the Russian air force did not apply to designer Antonov to extend the aircraft's operational deadline. The Ukrainian side did not have any information about the technical condition of the plane, the work done on it, flight suitability and valid certificates. However, according to the Ukrainian Fiscal Service, Simonyan's EK-72903 and EK-72425 registered planes were temporarily imported to Ukraine in 2004, 2006, 2007, 2010 and 2012 and then re-exported. In fact, the planes were transported to Ukraine for maintenance, but as noted, Antonov" was not aware of them. (see below)

EK-76992 (YI-BAT) – Crashes incurred by plane with false registration

In June 2013, Simonyan's Arab South Airlines Co. and Zaabu International signed a lease agreement for the Il-76 TD (see below).

The plane was shipped to the DRC in March 2013. It was registered in Armenia as EK-76992, but according to aviation databases, its operator was not one of Simonyan's three local airlines, but Ayk Avia, whose planes also had experience operating in Africa.

Revenues from the operation of the EK-76992 again flowed into the account of the Simonyan’s company in Sharjah. Simonyan and Zaabu's general director signed a one-year contract, but it was later extended. The lease for the IL-76 was estimated at $2,000 per hour, not including taxes and fees. For the first month (70 flight hours) Simonyan received a $140,000 prepayment. It should be noted that this aircraft was used for the needs of the Congolese Presidential Administration and the Army until 2019.

The RA Civil Aviation Committee informed the UN experts that all the "Il-76s" used in Armenian civil aviation were removed from the register by the end of 2014 (their further operation was prohibited). In other words, no civilian "Il-76" could have registered in Armenia after January 1, 2015.  Meanwhile, the above-mentioned plane continued to bear the EK-76992 registration in the DRC at least until the summer of 2017, which was illegal. The plane then received Iraqi registration YI-BAT. But it turns out that this was a fake registration.

Thus, Simonyan's Armenian South Airlines had an Il-76TD aircraft (owned by the Arab South Airlines Co.) in 2014. The registration was EK-76778, which was then transferred to Iraq and registered as YI-BAC. The company, Al-Rafidain Falcon, became the plane’s operator. Upon learning this, the U.N. experts contacted the operator about YI-BAT, but the latter stated that he did not have a plane with such registration. Later, the Iraqi Mission to the U.N. reported that its air force once had 16 Il-76s, but in 1991 Iran moved 15 of them into its territory, leaving only one in Iraq, and that one is not in operation.

The Il-76TD, which was manufactured in 1977 and received a false Iraqi registration, had problems in Congo in June 2019, when it caught fire twice. Afterwards, DRC civil aviation authorities banned Zaabu International from operating the plane, and informed its Iraqi counterparts, who had nothing to do with the plane.

Zaabu has asked for the ban to be lifted, but civil aviation authorities have responded that the company has violated DRC laws. When the EK-72903 crashed in October 2019, killing eight people, the DRC President's Security Adviser ordered civil aviation investigators to investigate possible violations by South Airlines Co. and Zaabu International. Both companies' aircraft operating in the DRC were grounded. 

To be continued

(Top photo: Feb. 25, 2015 - DRC government army soldiers (FARDC) patrolling in the province of Ituri. (MONUSCO / Abel Kavanagh)

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