Bos/Hrv/SrpRomânăБългарскиShqipМакедонскиελληνικά 21 Dec 15

War Gains: Bulgarian Arms Add Fuel to Middle East Conflicts

Saudi Arabia, the UAE and the US have bought millions of dollars of Bulgarian weaponry, much of it likely destined for the war in Syria, a BIRN investigation reveals.

Mariya Petkova Sofia, Anevo, Istanbul, Gaziantep and Antakya
 A Saudi Arabian Cargo Boeing 747 at Sofia Airport on November 4, 2014. Photo: Stephan Gagov

In October last year, plane spotters noted with some excitement that Boeing 747 jumbo jets marked Saudi Arabian Cargo had begun landing at the airport of the Bulgarian capital, Sofia.

"A Saudi cargo plane had never come here... for the past 20 years," explained Stephan Gagov, a veteran Bulgarian plane spotter.

The flights became so frequent that Gagov started a thread on an online plane-spotting forum about them, using the phrase "the regular route" in the title. Spotters reported seeing the planes land twice in late October, once in November, four times in December and once each in March and May this year.

The giant aircraft arrived from Jeddah, loaded up with cargo then flew to the Saudi city of Tabuk, about 100 km from the border with Jordan, noted the spotters, who use online flight-tracking tools.

Gagov estimated the planes took on between 60 and 80 tonnes of cargo in crates each time. He could not see what was inside the crates but he could tell they were heavy.

After the Saudi flights stopped, cargo planes from Abu Dhabi began arriving. Airbus A330F and Boeing 777F aircraft bearing the livery of Etihad Cargo landed in Sofia five times between late June and mid-August this year. Even more recently, on October 19, an Etihad Cargo Airbus 330F flew from Abu Dhabi to the Bulgarian city of Burgas and then to Al Dhafra Air Base, a military installation just south of the Emirati capital.

The Saudi, UAE and Bulgarian authorities have not disclosed the contents of these shipments. But the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN, can reveal that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have bought large quantities of weapons and ammunition from Bulgaria in the past two years, almost certainly for use by local forces they support in the war in Syria, and possibly also the conflict in Yemen.

"It's still more profitable than drug smuggling,"

- Bulgarian arms dealer 

Bulgaria's annual report on defence industry exports, which was published in August this year but received no media coverage, states that the government approved more than €85 million worth of munitions and military equipment sales to Saudi Arabia in 2014, with deals to the value of almost €29 million completed by the end of the year.

The Bulgarian government has also told BIRN that it issued permits for the sale this year of weapons to the United Arab Emirates.

Bulgaria makes and stockpiles mainly Soviet-style weapons. Analysts say it is highly unlikely Saudi Arabia or the UAE would buy these for their own forces, which use modern Western weapons, and it is therefore much more plausible they bought the munitions for local factions they back in Syria and Yemen, where Soviet-style arms are widely used.

A well-connected Bulgarian former military officer told BIRN the Saudi purchases were transported on the aircraft seen by the plane spotters and that they were intended for Syrian opposition fighters, with later shipments possibly also being used in Yemen.

An Etihad Cargo Boeing 777 takes off from Sofia Airport on June 30, 2015. Photo: Stephan Gagov

In the past year, the United States has also purchased arms from Bulgaria as part of a $500-million programme to train and equip Syrian opposition forces that has now been abandoned.

Opposition fighters and independent analysts have also told BIRN that Bulgarian weapons are being used in Syria, where more than 250,000 people have been killed and more than 11 million forced from their homes since war broke out in 2011.

Under communism, Bulgaria — a country of just seven million — built an enormous weapons industry, employing 110,000 people and bringing in up to $1.5 billion (€1.3 billion) in hard currency per year. The regime acquired Soviet technology to make small arms and ammunition. It amassed vast stockpiles to support its 100,000-strong military and the possibility of a general mobilisation.

During its 45-year-rule, Bulgaria's communist party also developed strong trade links with the Middle East and Africa which have been maintained by many traders, including those in the arms business.

Lucrative business

Peering through his large glasses, Nikolay Nikolov casually mentions that he has sat at the same table with Carlos the Jackal, the notorious Marxist militant who was active in the Middle East and Europe in the 1970s and 1980s.

Nikolov, a pseudonym to protect his identity, has been in the arms trade for more than 25 years.

"Everyone gets a cut," he says, including government officials and brokers. "The commissions are worth a few times the value of the arms deal. If something costs 10 million, the end price is 35 million."

Sitting in a small cafe in downtown Sofia where he likes to meet and do business, Nikolov chain-smokes and reminisces.

Asked about arms sales to the Middle East, he tells a story about dragging suitcases full of cash through an Arabian desert back in the day.

After the collapse of communism in 1989, weapons production in Bulgaria dropped substantially. The official value of defence exports plummeted to €111 million in 2006. But then sales began to pick up and by 2014 they had reached €403 million, according to government figures.

Bulgarian defence industry exports 2006-2014, in millions of euros. Source: Bulgarian Ministry of Economy reports.

 Nikolov says Bulgaria has been selling a lot of weapons from old stockpiles.

"The peak of arms exports was during the wars in Yugoslavia. A lot of weapons were exported to Serbia and Albania," he says. "Back then we had stockpiles worth billions, now we have just a few hundred million."

Although production and sales are just a fraction of pre-1989 levels, arms dealing in Bulgaria remains a highly lucrative business. "It's still more profitable than drug smuggling," Nikolov says.

Gulf interest

Saudi Arabia has not been a major customer for Bulgarian arms firms in recent years. But that changed in 2014.

The Bulgarian government's report says it issued permits for munitions and military equipment sales worth €85.5 million to Saudi Arabia last year — including ammunition worth €65.4 million, large calibre weapons to the value of €12.5 million and small calibre weapons worth €5 million. By the end of 2014, Bulgarian companies in the sector had completed deals for exports to the Gulf state worth €28.9 million.

Bulgaria's Economy Ministry, which oversees the arms trade, told BIRN in a statement that the deals included small arms as well as light and heavy weaponry.

A UN report listed 827 light machine guns and 120 SPG-9 recoilless anti-tank guns as part of Bulgaria’s arms exports to Saudi Arabia in 2014.

Ben Moores, a senior analyst at defence consultancy IHS Janes, said such weapons were likely going to Syria or Yemen. The Saudi military is armed with Belgian-made light machine guns and does not use SPG-9s, he said.

"This type of weapon is very unlikely to be used by the Saudi military, but it is very heavily used in Yemen, in Iraq and in Syria," he said.

The Bulgarian former military officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told BIRN the flights between Sofia and Saudi Arabia were to transport Bulgarian weapons for Syrian opposition groups. After the planes landed in Tabuk, the arms were loaded onto trucks and transported to a distribution centre in Jordan for Syrian opposition forces, he said.

Saudi Arabia is a major backer of fighters opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Riyadh financed a big purchase of infantry weapons from Croatia for Syrian opposition forces, the New York Times reported in 2013, citing American and Western officials "familiar with the purchases".

In a BBC interview in late October 2015, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir openly acknowledged that Riyadh supplied arms to Syrian opposition fighters. "We have to contribute to changing the balance of the power on the ground," he said.

The Bulgarian former military officer said some of the weapons shipped to Saudi Arabia "may have also been used for Yemen, as the later flights coincided with the beginning of the Saudi operation there". Saudi Arabia started military action in Yemen in late March in support of forces loyal to exiled President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

Unlike Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates already had a recent history of buying arms from Bulgaria. A diplomatic cable from the US embassy in Sofia, published by WikiLeaks, reported that the UAE funded a 2010 deal to buy tens of thousands of assault rifles, 100,000 high-explosive charges, rocket-propelled grenades and ammunition for Yemen's then-government.

The cable also said that Bulgaria consults with the US embassy on potentially controversial arms deals. Contacted by BIRN, the embassy declined to say whether it was aware of other countries buying Bulgarian weapons for use in Syria.

Bulgarian defence industry exports to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, in millions of euros. Source: Bulgarian Ministry of Economy reports

This year, the Bulgarian government issued licences for the export of ammunition, firearms and defence equipment to the UAE, the Economy Ministry told BIRN. It declined to state the value of these deals.

Pieter Wezeman, a researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, said "it doesn’t make sense" that the UAE would buy weapons and ammunition from Bulgaria for its own forces. He said he suspected these munitions would be diverted to either Syria or Yemen. Moores voiced a similar conclusion.

"It is much more likely that [the weapons UAE bought] would be rerouted to a third party," he said.

Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE are part of a coalition in Yemen that has conducted air strikes, deployed ground forces and supplied weapons to local fighters with the aim of battling Shi'ite forces known as Houthis. Riyadh was also involved in supplying weapons to Yemen before its own forces intervened there, Wezeman said.

The Saudi and UAE embassies responsible for their affairs in Bulgaria did not respond to questions from BIRN. Bulgaria's Economy Ministry said it would not issue licences for arms deals when concerns were raised about the possible diversion or re-export of the weapons.

Legal framework

There is no UN ban on supplying arms to Syria and most elements of an EU embargo were lifted in 2013. In the Yemen war, the UN has imposed a ban only on supplying arms to Houthi forces.

However, as a signatory to the global Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) that came into force in December 2014, Bulgaria also has a responsibility to prevent weapons being diverted to nations or groups other than the specified recipients.

The legality of any deals that have led to Bulgarian weapons reaching Syria may depend on the precise terms of those agreements.

In arms deals, the importing state has to provide an End User Certificate, which may include a clause specifying that the weapons will not be transferred to a third party. But even if such a clause exists, an importing state may face little or no punishment for disregarding it.

"If an export is authorized, and diversion takes place, there is limited action the exporting state can take (other than not exporting weapons to that country/entity again)," Sarah Parker, a senior researcher at Small Arms Survey, a Geneva-based research centre, said in an email.

"It does have an obligation under the ATT to address and prevent diversion. So if it sees a recipient is a diversion risk, it should also share this information with other exporters," she added.

American accident

On June 6 this year, a fatal explosion at an arms testing ground in rural Bulgaria forced the United States to admit it had been weapons-shopping in Bulgaria as part of an effort to support Syrian opposition fighters.

A US contractor, 41-year-old Navy veteran Francis Norwillo, died when a rocket-propelled grenade exploded as it was being loaded into an RPG-7 launcher. Two other US citizens and two Bulgarians were also hurt.

The Americans were working for a US company named Purple Shovel, contracted by the US military to help train and equip opposition fighters in Syria, the US embassy said in a terse statement.

"The three contractors were conducting familiarization training for other company employees at the time of the incident," the embassy said, declining to make any further comment.

A US government procurement database shows that Special Operations Command (SOCOM), which was in charge of the US military effort to assist Syrian fighters, awarded Purple Shovel a contract worth more than $26.7 million (€24.6 million) in December 2014 to supply foreign weapons and ammunition. Their country of origin is listed as Bulgaria.

The contract was amended twice to reach a total value of $28.3 million, according to the database.

Asked about the deal, SOCOM spokesman Kenneth McGraw said via email:

"The weapons that were purchased with this contract included the AT-5 Anti-Tank Missile Launcher, the SPG-9 Anti-Tank Recoilless Gun and RPG-7 Rocket-Propelled Grenade Launcher."

But he said the weapon involved in the explosion at Anevo was not part of the contract.
Despite the fatal incident, McGraw said the contract had not been cancelled.

"All the weapons in Syria are Russian models,"

 - Syrian opposition commander 

The grenade was made in 1984, according to Bulgarian authorities, who are investigating the incident. A Buzzfeed News report cited an unnamed arms expert saying a grenade of that age would be "way past its shelf life". But two

Bulgarian former military officers told BIRN that ammunition has a decades-long shelf life if stored properly and a grenade made in 1984 would not be too old to use safely.

Alexander Dimitrov, the owner of Alguns, a private company that had hired the testing ground on the day of the explosion, declined to comment.

Purple Shovel, a company based in Sterling, Virginia, also declined to comment on the incident or the contract with SOCOM.

The US procurement database shows SOCOM also awarded a contract worth more than $32,000 (€28,200) to another US company, UDC USA, to supply ammunition from Bulgaria. The contract was signed on the same date as the Purple Shovel deal and displays the same "solicitation ID", the code used on a written call for bids to fulfil a contract.

Reached by phone and asked if the contract was for the US task force arming Syrian fighters, company president Matthew Herring told BIRN: "No, no, we're not a part of that and we're certainly not at liberty to talk about it."

The US military effort to train and equip forces to fight the ISIS militant group in Syria was heavily criticised by members of the US Congress for being ineffective. On October 9 this year, the Obama administration announced it was abandoning the scheme. But a covert Central Intelligence Agency programme to arm Syrians fighting Assad's forces remains in place.

Turkish connection

On a hot morning in late July, a dozen Syrian opposition commanders chatted in the cafe of a boutique hotel near Taksim Square in downtown Istanbul after attending coordination meetings. They were preparing to head for southern Turkey and then back to the front line in northern Syria.

 Three men, commanders of units in Idlib and Aleppo provinces, agreed to talk to BIRN. One explained that arms are supplied to opposition forces through two "military operations rooms" — one in Turkey and one in Jordan. All three said they received weapons from the operations room in Turkey — which they called by its abbreviation MOM — including AK-47 rifles, RPG-7 rocket propelled grenade launchers and SPG-9 anti-tank guns.

Asked if they received Bulgarian arms, one said: "All the weapons in Syria are Russian models. Both the regime and the revolution [opposition] use them. They may come from countries like Bulgaria, Ukraine, Czech Republic, but we don't know where exactly they're produced."

Told that Bulgarian weapons sometimes bear the number 10 inside two circles, one commander sent a WhatsApp message on his mobile phone to a fighter in his unit in Syria, who sent back three photos of weapons. Two of them had the identifying symbol.

Bulgarian-made PK variant machine gun (left) and an RPG-7 launcher (right) used in Western Aleppo Province in Syria, according to a Syrian opposition commander who provided the pictures

A munitions specialist, who declined to be named, later identified these two weapons as a rocket-propelled grenade launcher and a PK machine gun. The commander said they were used in the western Aleppo countryside.

BIRN cannot verify where the photos were taken but N.R. Jenzen-Jones, the director of British-based consultancy Armament Research Services, said there were "notable quantities of arms and munitions produced in Bulgaria which have been documented in Syria".

Most of the weapons dated from the 1970s and 1980s and included small arms and light weapons such as anti-tank weapons, ammunition and ordnance  such as projectiles for recoilless weapons and mortar projectiles, he said via email.

Bulgaria supplied both the Syrian and Iraqi armies over many years so some weapons may have come from existing stockpiles within those countries. But Jenzen-Jones said his organisation had received "numerous allegations that surplus Bulgarian material has been provided to Syrian rebel factions".

"We have not been able to independently verify these claims," he added.

Like Saudi Arabia and the United States, Turkey has been heavily involved in providing support to opposition groups in Syria. Nihat Ozcan, a retired military officer and an analyst at the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey, said nations backing the Syrian opposition also used Turkey as a transit point to get weapons into Syria.

"They collect this type of old Soviet arms and equipment from the [former Eastern Bloc] countries, like Bulgaria, Romania or from Central Asia. They bring [them] to Turkey and then pass [them] to Syria under the United States, Turkish and the alliance control," Ozcan said.

A Syrian aid worker with knowledge of moderate anti-Assad groups in Idlib and Aleppo provinces said weapons purchased by foreign nations were transferred to opposition forces through the military operations room.

The arms were delivered to the Turkish-Syrian frontier, where Syrian fighters picked them up, he said in an interview in the Turkish city of Gaziantep, near the border.

The military operations rooms in Turkey and Jordan are supported by a group of Western and Arab countries including the United States, Saudi Arabia and the UAE as well as the host nations, according to multiple Syrian opposition sources.

As well as these arms transfers sanctioned by national governments, there is some evidence that munitions are also being smuggled into Syria in private deals.

Another man with the group in the Istanbul hotel, who identified himself as a member of an opposition military council in Homs province, told BIRN he saw a shipment of Bulgarian weapons arrive by truck in Homs in August 2012.

The man, who asked to be identified only as Abu Fatima, said a Syrian businessman allegedly paid $1.6 million (€1.4 million) for the weapons, which included AK-47 rifles, grenade launchers and ammunition. He said the deal was arranged by Bulgarian and Syrian arms dealers.

In a separate interview, a former Syrian opposition fighter said he was involved in 12 transfers of Bulgarian weapons starting in 2013, the biggest of which was worth $7 million (€6.4 million).

The fighter, who asked not to be named, said the shipments were delivered at the Turkish-Syrian border in two trucks and were arranged by Syrian and Turkish nationals with connections to Bulgarian arms dealers.

Mariya Petkova is a Bulgarian journalist who covers stories in eastern Europe, the Balkans and the Middle East.  This article was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, supported by the ERSTE Foundation and Open Society Foundations, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.

Talk about it!

blog comments powered by Disqus