Pirates’ Catch Exposed Route of Arms in a Tense Sudan
Tony Karumba/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Published: December 8, 2010
KHARTOUM, Sudan — It was September 2008 and a band of Somalipirates made a startling discovery.
Tony Karumba/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
The Ukrainian freighter they had just commandeered in the Gulf of Aden was packed with weapons, including 32 Soviet-era battle tanks, and the entire arsenal was headed for the regional government in southernSudan. The Ukrainian and Kenyan governments vigorously denied that, insisting that the tanks were intended for the Kenyan military.
“This is a big loss for us,” said Alfred Mutua, a spokesman for the Kenyan government, at the time.
But it turns out the pirates were telling the truth — and the Kenyans and Ukrainians were not, at least publicly. According to several secret State Department cables made public by WikiLeaks, the tanks not only were headed to southern Sudan, but they were the latest installment of several underground arms shipments. By the time the freighter was seized, 67 T-72 tanks had already been delivered to bolster southern Sudan’s armed forces against the government in Khartoum, an international pariah for its human rights abuses in Darfur.
Bush administration officials knew of the earlier weapons transactions and chose not to shut them down, an official from southern Sudan asserted in an interview, and the cables acknowledge the Kenyan officials’ assertions that they had kept American officials informed about the deal. But once the pirates exposed the arms pipeline through Kenya, the Obama administration protested to the Ukrainian and Kenyan governments, even threatening sanctions, the cables show.
Vann H. Van Diepen, a senior State Department official, presented the Ukrainians with a sales contract that showed southern Sudan as the recipient, according to a November 2009 cable from the American Embassy in Kiev. When they dismissed it as a forgery, Mr. Van Diepen “showed the Ukrainians cleared satellite imagery of T-72 tanks unloaded in Kenya, transferred to railyards for onward shipment, and finally in South Sudan,” the cable said, referring to the early deliveries of the weapons. “This led to a commotion on the Ukrainian side.”
The United States’ shifting stance, on policy and legal grounds, on arms for southern Sudan is illuminated in the State Department cables, which were made available to The New York Times and several other news organizations.
The revelations about the tanks — the ones taken by the pirates are now sitting in Kenya, their fate unclear — come at one of the most delicate times in Sudan’s history, with the nation, Africa’s largest, on the verge of splitting into two. On Jan. 9, southern Sudanese are scheduled to vote in a referendum for their independence from northern Sudan, representing the end of a 50-year war. Huge quantities of weapons have been flowing to both sides, mainly to the north, turning the country into one of the most combustible on the continent. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton recently called it “a ticking time bomb.”
While Kenyan newspapers and other publications have written about the arms shipment since the pirate episode, confirmation that the government of southern Sudan was the recipient has raised concerns among diplomats that the news could further inflame tensions.
Ghazi Salah al-Din al-Atabani, a top adviser to President Omar Hassan al-Bashir of Sudan, chuckled when told of the cables. “We knew it, yeah, we knew it,” he said in an interview. He expressed no surprise that the United States appeared to condone some of the shipments, saying: “Officially, we are enemies.” Still, he said, the shipments could become “a very hot political issue.”
Southern Sudan, mostly Christian and animist, fought even before Sudan’s independence in 1956 to split with the Arab government in Khartoum. More than two million people were killed and government-sponsored militias, similar to those that raped and pillaged in Darfur, swept across the region, razing villages and massacring civilians. In 2005, the two sides signed a peace agreement, which granted the south autonomy and the right to vote on secession next year.
The agreement also allows southern Sudan to buy arms to transform its guerrilla army into a defense force, and the United States has also publicly said that it has provided communications and other “nonlethal” equipment and training to the southern army, called the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, or S.P.L.A. The cables suggest that effort has gone further than the United States has publicized.
“Over the past two years,” says a December 2009 cable, from the embassy in Nairobi, Kenyan officials “have shared full details of their engagement with the SPLA as we have shared details of our training program for the SPLA, including combat arms soldier training.”
Several years ago, the southern Sudan government contracted to buy 100 tanks from Ukraine using its own funds. The first shipment of Ukrainian tanks took place in 2007 with little fanfare, and the second shipment was delivered a year later.
In September 2008, however, the Faina, a Ukrainian freighter, was seized by Somali pirates. It was carrying 32 T-72 Soviet-era tanks, 150 grenade launchers, 6 antiaircraft guns and ammunition. Initially, American officials were worried the pirates might offload the weapons in Somalia.
After months of haggling, a $3.2 million ransom was paid, the Somali pirates finallyreleased the ship, and the arms were unloaded in Kenya.
When Ukrainian officials were approached by American officials about the arms shipments in July 2008, they insisted that the weapons were intended for Kenya’s military. Even so, some American diplomats understood otherwise and did not appear very concerned. In a cable from Oct. 19, 2008, Alberto M. Fernandez, who served as the chargé d’affaires in Khartoum, reports that he told officials from southern Sudan that while that United States would prefer not to see an arms buildup in the region, it understood that the government there “feels compelled to do the same” as the north. He also cautioned the officials to take care, if there were future shipments, to avoid a repeat hijacking by pirates and “the attention it has drawn.”
After the Obama administration took office, a new special envoy for Sudan was appointed and the United States offered incentives for Khartoum to cooperate with the coming referendum. Taking a stricter position than the Bush administration on the tanks, the State Department also insisted that the shipments were illegal, since Sudan was on the United States’ list of state sponsors of terrorism.
In a blunt exchange with the Ukrainians in November 2009, Mr. Van Diepen warned that the United States might impose sanctions unless the Ukrainian government acknowledged its role in the past transactions. According to the cable, he cautioned pointedly, “there was nothing for Ukraine to gain from lying and a lot to lose.”
In similar conversations with Kenyan officials, the Obama administration again raised the threat of “sweeping sanctions,” which it said might be waived if the officials cooperated in investigating the third shipment.
In a Nov. 27, 2009, cable outlining talking points for American diplomats in Nairobi to present to the Kenyans, the State Department acknowledged “the apparent disconnect” between provisions of the peace agreement that allowed southern Sudan to develop its defensive capability and the Americans’ legal argument that arms should not be sent there because of the Khartoum government’s place on the terrorism list.
“We also recognize that some members of your government informed some members of the USG that this deal was being prepared,” the cable, which was sent by Secretary Clinton, added. But the cable argued that southern Sudan did not need the tanks, they would be difficult to maintain and they would “increase the chance of an arms race with Khartoum.”
That did not appear to mollify the Kenyans. A cable on Dec. 16, 2009, recounted that the head of Kenya’s general staff told American officials that he was “very confused” by the United States position “since the past transfers had been undertaken in consultation with the United States.” According to the cable, the Kenyans asked whether the Obama administration was reconsidering whether to move forward with a referendum under the peace accord and whether it was “shifting its support to Khartoum.”
In recent months, the Obama administration quietly exempted Ukraine and Kenya from sanctions for the 2007 and 2008 shipments, according to government officials.
It is not clear, however, whether the administration has asked Kenya to hold off sending the tanks that were aboard the seized ship to southern Sudan, at least until after the referendum. A State Department spokesman declined to respond to those questions.
The Kenyans have told southern Sudan officials that the Americans are still asking them not to ship the tanks, according to Gen. Oyay Deng Ajak, the former chief of staff of the southern Sudan military, who asserted that the Americans had been aware of the transaction from the start.
Representative Donald M. Payne, the New Jersey Democrat who heads the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Africa, has urged that the tanks be shipped. “Our government knew those tanks were being purchased,” he said in an interview. “The fact is the pirates’ seizure of the tanks is what made them change their policy. I don’t think the Obama administration has a clear policy on Sudan.”