A UN probe into the conflict in Libya led investigators to a small airstrip south of Belgrade, where an ‘agricultural’ plane – modified to carry rockets and traced to US security contractor Erik Prince – was serviced in 2018.
Gas Aviation’s hangar is located at the small Rudine grass strip airfield in the town of Smederevska Palanka, some 80 kilometres south of the Serbian capital, Belgrade.
It was here that the aircraft maintenance firm, a leader in the region, took delivery of a single-engine crop duster in late summer 2018. There was nothing unusual about it, said Gas Aviation owner Zeljko Ivosevic.
Yet less than three years later, in March 2021, the same plane was pictured in a report published by a United Nations-appointed panel of experts, but with some deadly additions: a 16-57mm Rocket Pod, a 32-57mm Rocket Pod and a gun pod fitted with twin 23mm cannon under its wings.
In 2018, “When it came to us, there was nothing modified on it,” Ivosevic, a former pilot, told BIRN in April this year.
But modified it was, and well before its sojourn in Serbia, according to UN investigators who have traced the aircraft to an alleged $80 million scheme by US security contractor Erik Prince to supply weapons to a Libyan militia commander in violation of a decade-long arms embargo.
The UN arms embargo dates to February 2011, when Muammar Gaddafi was trying to crush a rebellion against his decades-long rule. Gaddafi was killed in October that year, but stability has eluded Libya. For the past seven years, rebel militia commander Khalifa Haftar has been fighting to take control of the country, having already secured its east.
The 77 year-old enjoys the backing of the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Russia, France, and Saudi Arabia among others. The UN-recognised Government of National Accord in the capital, Tripoli, is supported by Turkey, the European Union and, at least until the Trump presidency, by the US.
In April 2019, then President Donald Trump spoke by phone with Haftar and the White House said that he “recognised” the military leader’s “significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources.” The two, it said, discussed “a shared vision” for Libya’s transition to a stable democracy, signalling what some international media said was a shift in US policy potentially motivated by the activities of Prince, long reported to be an ally of Trump.
The embargo remains in place, but the UN Panel of Experts called it “totally ineffective.”
Among others, the Panel flagged Prince for violations, describing a complex network of associates whom it said “violated or assisted in the evasion of the provisions of the arms embargo in Libya.”
Matthew L. Schwartz, a lawyer for Prince, did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Prince is no stranger to controversy. The former US Navy Seal was founder of the Blackwater security firm that became synonymous with the abuses committed by military contractors during the US ‘war on terror’.
According to the UN report, on around April 14, 2019, within days of an assault on Tripoli by Haftar’s forces, Prince pitched to him ‘Project Opus’, an $80 million deal for the supply of aircraft and other military hardware.
Under the plan, Prince’s associates would buy surplus military helicopters from Jordan. But when Jordan suspended the auction in June 2019, the Project Opus team had to rethink fast and “identify and procure new aircraft,” the report alleged.
One of them was a specialist LASA T-Bird, ‘LASA’ meaning Light Attack and Surveillance Aircraft, owned at the time by UAE-based L-6 FZE, itself owned by Amanda Perry, an associate of Australian former fighter pilot Christiaan Durrant, a close business partner of Prince.
The UN investigators say Prince was in fact in control of the companies that owned the aircraft.
The planes were “deployed before any payment and normal due diligence could take place,” they wrote, leading to the conclusion that Prince had assisted in the procurement.
“No one else was in a position to arrange the sale of those aircraft within such a short time frame,” they wrote.
According to the report, Prince arranged for the crop duster’s military upgrade in 2014/2015, by Airborne Technologies GmbH of Austria, with Durrant in charge of the project.
“A nose-mounted S.C.A.R pod containing an imagery sensor surveillance system, and six removable weapon hardpoints under the wings were fitted,” it said. “Extensive engineering work inside the aircraft took place to fit the targeting and weapons release systems.”
In 2015, the plane was registered in Bulgaria with LASA Engineering, which was founded the year before. According to news reports by Intercept , LASA was created as a Prince’s front company, replacing Austria-based Airborne Technologies, which he also controlled, in order to avoid strict Austrian arms exports laws.
In 2017, the LASA T-Bird debuted at the Paris Air Show, where pictures online show it with and without weapons. It arrived in Serbia for maintenance work in August 2018.
The plane was registered in Serbia with Gas Aviation listed as its operator. Ivosevic confirmed he had a contract with Bulgarian LASA Engineering to service the plane but denied it arrived as a combat aircraft.
“It’s forbidden,” he told BIRN. “It cannot pass the checks otherwise.”
Ivosevic said he had never worked with LASA Engineering before, but that 90 per cent of Bulgarian aviation companies use his services “because they don’t have anything like this.”
“The closest centre like this is in Germany,” he said.
The Serbian Civil Aviation Directorate said the plane was registered as a ‘non-commercial’ aircraft. It issued an airworthiness certificate in June 2019, when LASA Engineering sold it to L-6 FZE, of which Durrant was director. The same month, the plane travelled to Amman in Jordan, where it stayed until July 11, when, according to the UN report, Jordanian authorities told Durrant to remove all assets of the first part of Project Opus identified by the UN as Opus A.
A little over a week later, on or around July 22, a flight plan was submitted for the T-Bird to fly to Larnaca, Cyprus.
Ivosevic said Gas Aviation had recently been contacted by an “English pilot” asking the company to service the aircraft in Cyprus, but that he declined due to restrictions on operating outside Serbia’s borders. Ivosevic declined to give the name of the pilot, citing business confidentiality. His statement suggests the plane remained in Cyprus for months, but the UN investigators said Cypriot air traffic control “have no records of the aircraft landing there.”
They cited Durrant as saying he did not know the whereabouts of the T-Bird, a claim the investigators said was “highly unlikely”.
There is no indication that the T-Bird arrived in Libya, though some of the aircraft promised by Prince did reach Haftar, according to the UN report.
The company, however, is not listed in Bulgaria’s Public Register of entities registered for export and transfer of dual-use items and technologies.
Gas Aviation is not the only company in Serbia to have dealings with associates of Prince.
In December 2020, BIRN revealed that an arms-trade company owned by a senior official of Serbia’s ruling Progressive Party, SNS, had a business relationship with Durrant and Maltese arms trader James Fenech, both mentioned in the UN report.
VIP Global Logistics, established in 2017, is owned by Nemanja Marijan, board of the SNS.
Among its partners, the company listed Lancaster 6, a Maltese company controlled by Durrant, and PBM Ammunition connected to Fenech, who is also accused of arms trade violations by the UN.
In 2018, PBM and Prince jointly launched an ammunition brand under the name ‘Blackwater Ammunition’, using the original Blackwater logo. Fenech, in a written statement to BIRN, said he condemned “any action that might have taken place in Libya” but denied having “any kind of links with Mr. Prince.”
Of the UN report, Fenech said: “I was accused of a technical non-compliance which I refute and cannot agree on as our vessels are Civilian Grade vessels…We had the necessary Police and customs clearance for the vessels to leave Malta and if what is being reported is verified as true we are reserving the right to take legal action against the client.”
Asked about the business ties between PBM Ammunition and VIP Global Logistics of SNS senior official Marijan, Fenech said that he had sold his shares in PBM in early 2020 and was not familiar with the Serbian company. PBM and Lancaster 6 both featured on the references list of VIP Global Logistics in 2019.
Lancaster 6 is also among the companies labelled for violation of arms trade embargo to Libya by the UN panel. The firm is also affiliated with another company controlled by Durrant – L-6 FZE, the last known owner of the LASA T-Bird airplane.
Describing L-6 FZE, the UN investigators say the company was used for “arranging the transfer of military equipment and providing other assistance relating to military activities to an armed group in Libya”.
The UN investigators said both Fenech and Durrant were “arranging the transfer of military equipment and providing other assistance relating to military activities to an armed group in Libya”.
Contacted by BIRN, Durrant directed all questions to his lawyer, Vince Gordon, who did not respond by the time this article was published.
Sasa Dragojlo joined BIRN in 2020 as a correspondent for Balkan Insight. Previously, he has worked for Balkan Insight from 2015 to 2016.
Svetoslav Todorov, Balkan Insight’s Bulgaria correspondent, also contributed to this article.