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Opinion

Colombian gun-running scandal links shady Israelis, Al-Qaeda
Trio sought for providing arms to group branded ‘terrorist’ by US

Report: 3 from Jewish state also have ties to Lebanese and bin Laden’s network

Ed Blanche
Special to The Daily Star

BEIRUT: Guatemalan authorities this week ordered the arrest of three Israelis for allegedly running 3,117 AK-47 assault rifles 5 million rounds of 7.62mm ammunition to a group of right-wing Latin American paramilitaries, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), which the US State Department has branded a terrorist group and says has links to the country’s cocaine barons.
Israeli arms dealers and mercenaries have been linked to South American drug cartels and unsavory right-wing regimes in the region since the 1970s, often apparently doing the United States’ dirty work. But the latest arms scandal has a particular resonance given President George W. Bush’s “war on terrorism” and Washington’s support for the Colombian government against leftist terrorists known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

The 11,000-strong AUC is also fighting the FARC. The smuggled weapons significantly boosted the right-wingers’ ability to wage war on the leftists and to protect the cocaine and heroin industries at a time when the Bush administration is seeking to increase and broaden military assistance to the Bogota government to stamp out the multi-billion-dollar narcotics trade.

An exhaustive report on the scandal that involved Nicaragua, Guatemala and Colombia by the General Secretariat of the Organization of American States (OAS), obtained by The Daily Star, links the Israeli arms dealers with Lebanese arms brokers in West Africa allegedly involved in guns-for-diamonds deals that helped fund Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda network.

On Aug. 8, a Guatemalan court issued arrest warrants for the three Israelis, Shimon Yelinek, who headed the DIGAL S.A. arms trading company in Panama, and Ori Zoller and Uzi Kissilevich, who own the Guatemala-based company Grupo de Representaciones Internacionales (GIR SA), which handled the purchase of the weapons and ammunition. They are accused of illegally shipping the arms ­ enough to equip three battalions of fighters ­ from Nicaragua, ostensibly bound for Panama National Police Force through a forged purchase order, to the remote fishing port of Puerto Turbo on Colombia’s Atlantic coast on Nov. 7, 2001.

The OAS report, dated Jan. 6, 2003, identifies Zoller as GIR SA’s owner and as a representative of Israel Military Industries (IMI), the state-owned flagship of Israel’s defense industry. It said he was a former intelligence officer with the Israeli Army’s Special Forces.

The Israeli Defense Ministry later denied that any of the Israelis involved in the gunrunning were licensed arms dealers. However, the highly detailed OAS report, including testimony apparently provided by Zoller, notes that a month after the arms had been secretly delivered to Colombia, Zoller received two wire transfers totaling $56,000 from the Mercantile Discount Bank of Tel Aviv and the First International Bank of Israel in the same city.

The report did not say if the transfers were linked to the gunrunning, but mention of them in the context of the scandal would indicate that OAS investigators suspect they were.
On May 2, 2002, Spain’s EFE news agency reported that Nicaragua’s deputy police chief, Francisco Bautista, claimed the arms deal, although not cleared with the Panamanian authorities, was legal and that the shipment had been diverted “in international waters outside of Nicaragua.” He also presented an invoice from DIGAL signed by Amran Maor, IMI’s deputy vice-president and marketing director for Latin America, dated May 31, 2000.

The OAS report said Kissilevich, Zoller’s partner in GIR SA, was a former member of the Israeli military. The report says Yelinek, based in Panama, was the actual purchaser of the Nicaraguan weapons through GIR SA who “appears consistently at the heart of the matter.” The report says they were aided in acquiring the arms from the Nicaraguan Army by its inspector-general, General Roberto Calderon, who had done business with GIR SA since 1999. Nicaragua’s security forces have vast amounts of surplus Soviet-era weapons left over from the Sandinistas’ war against the US-funded Contras in the 1980s.
The report says that three weeks after the arms had been delivered to the AUC, which confirmed in June 2002 that it had the weapons Yelinek sought to set up a second, larger arms shipment consisting of 5,000 AK-47s and 17 million rounds of ammunition, also from the Nicaraguan Army and using the same phony purchase order for the Panamanian police.

But, the report adds, that operation, organized by Zoller, was abandoned after it was learned through Calderon that the Colombian, Panamanian and Nicaraguan intelligence services had launched “Operation Triangle,” described as a “sting operation” to catch the traffickers.

Yelinek, who disappeared when the scandal broke in April 2002, was arrested on arms trafficking charges when he flew back in Panama in mid-November 2002. As far as is known, he remains behind bars there. The whereabouts of Zoller and Kissilevich are not known.

The OAS report said that its investigation team had uncovered links between Yelinek and his associates with Lebanese arms dealers operating in Sierra Leone, one of whom is under investigation by several governments for ties to Al-Qaeda. The report said that Samih Osailly, a Lebanese arrested in Belgium in June 2001, had been in contact with Yelinek to buy arms and ammunition for the neurotically brutal Revolutionary United Front (RUF) faction in Sierra Leone.

This request was linked to a fax sent by Zoller at GIR SA to Calderon on Jan. 5, 2001, listing anti-aircraft guns, surface-to-air missiles, rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons sought by the RUF, presumably in hopes that he could provide them from Nicaraguan military stocks.

Osailly worked with Ibrahim Bah, a Libyan-trained former Senegalese rebel and the principal diamond dealer with the RUF, which illegally mines the precious stones in Sierra Leone.

He fought in Afghanistan with the Islamic mujahideen against Soviet forces in the 1979-89 war and later purportedly joined Hizbullah in Lebanon where he fought against the Israelis for some time in the 1980s. According to Western intelligence sources, he funnels profits from dealings in “conflict diamonds” to Hizbullah using sympathetic Lebanese businessmen across West Africa.

Diamond industry sources say that Osailly was heavily involved with Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, a Kenyan considered to be a senior Al-Qaeda operative and high on the Americans’ most-wanted list. He has been linked to the August 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es Salaam and the November 2002 attacks in Mombasa, Kenya. Osailly has also been linked to the 1998 bombings.

The arrest of the Israelis wanted in the Colombian scandal, should they ever stand trial, could lead to more embarrassing revelations about their clandestine operations in Latin American that neither Israel nor the US would like to see the light of day.


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