By Lucy Komisar
Pacific News Service, Aug 16, 2002
Bell Helicopters of Texas sold parts to Serbia during a U.N. arms embargo, a report to the war crimes trial of ex-president Slobodan Milosevic shows. The Milosevic regime, writes PNS investigative reporter Lucy Komisar, paid through a secret offshore financial network that included a byzantine web of global tax havens.
At a time when Americans are concerned about U.S. corporate corruption, a tribunal in The Hague has revealed another shadowy deal with international reverberations. Bell Helicopters of Texas sold parts to Serbia during a U.N. arms embargo, when Serbia was involved in a genocidal war using helicopters. The regime of ex-president Slobodan Milosevic paid through a complex, secret offshore financial network.
On June 5, 1998, Serbia paid Bell $154,785 for spare parts for helicopters. At the time, Serbia was in dire need of working helicopters to use in Kosovo. In that war, some 8,000 to 10,000 Kosovars died.
During the embargo, Milosevic got what he needed — helicopter parts, weapons, oil and millions of dollars of other supplies through an intricate network of shell companies and secret bank accounts that spread from the offshore financial center Cyprus through Greece and some 50 other countries, including the United States.
The Bell sale was revealed in June by Morten Torkildsen, an investigator for the U.N. International Criminal Tribunal at The Hague. His report on the secret financial network that allowed Serbia to evade the embargo was presented as evidence at Milosevic’s war crimes trial, in session now.
In a telephone interview, a spokesman for Bell Helicopters in Fort Worth, Mike Cox, said, The parts we sold were fuselage parts for civil and commercial aircraft. There were no weapons involved.
Cox said Bell checked with the Commerce Department and were told we were in compliance. However Marise Stewart, director of international government relations in Washington for Textron, which owns Bell, said: We don’t have to check with anybody. In the case of a civilian commercial aircraft or parts sale, there’s no requirement for clearance or review.
Was there any discussion inside Bell about the wisdom of selling the parts to Serbia, then conducting a genocidal war
There would be no reason to discuss the advisability of a commercial civilian sale, unless you think the customer is not going to pay, said Stewart.
Helicopters are civilian and military dual-use equipment. Civilian choppers can be retrofitted for military use. The Bell 206B, which carries five persons, is an observation helicopter, used by police departments. The Bell 212, which carries fifteen, is the famous Huey of the type used in the Vietnam War. It is designed as a transport but is easily and commonly converted to military use. The parts sold to Serbia were for both types of Bell helicopters.
The U.S. adds arms to its Hueys, said Mark Hiznay of Human Rights Watch. Serbia had its own weapons industry and could easily do the same.
Serbia may well have changed the Hueys in just that way. Radomir Markovic, head of the Serbian State Security (SDB) branch — the secret police — told Hague Tribunal interrogators, We needed to secure foreign currency reserves to provide the SDB with the equipment it needed — guns for [SDB] helicopters. He said the equipment arrived and was installed on those helicopters.
Stewart said Bell had no legal requirements to look behind the customer’s ultimate intention or motivation.
The Serbs started their campaign in Kosovo in February and intensified fighting in late May. News reports noted Serbian forces used tanks and helicopters against ethnic Albanian villages. Bell signed its contract in June.
There has been no admission or proof that helicopters fitted with the new spare parts were used in military operations either as gunships or to carry troops or war material. What is certain is that the Serbs went to extremes to disguise their Bell purchase. The Hague investigator, a Norwegian forensic auditor, reported that the transaction was handled by the Cyprus-based Abridge Trading Ltd. Bank documents show that Abridge’s primary function was purchase of military equipment for Serbia.
Abridge was part of a covert Serb network that included eight shell companies with accounts in Cyprus banks that arranged weapons shipments from firms in Israel, Russia, Germany and the United States. Investigators at the U.S. Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control believe that at least $1 billion was moved out of Yugoslavia through Cyprus Banks to global tax havens.
In my career, I have never encountered or heard of an offshore finance structure this large and intricate, said Torkildsen, the auditor.
Why did Serbia and Bell do the deal though this offshore company if they didn’t want to hide the sale? Bell declined to answer whether the request for the sale came directly from Abridge or the Serbian government and what it knew or found out about Abridge.
Article on PNS site