St. Louis Today: Bulgarian Arms Import Scheme Had Ties to Local Case

Views on BG | January 5, 2003, Sunday // 00:00| Views: | Comments: 0

By Peter Shinkle

St. Louis Today

The Bulgarian trading company Kintex has been accused of selling weapons to Iraq, arming terrorist groups, trafficking in heroin and even bankrolling an attempted assassination of the pope.

Now, with the markets for its weapons shrinking, Kintex has quietly tried to enter a new, and potentially vast, market - the United States.

Kintex's efforts came to light after federal agents discovered an illegal scheme to import automatic weapons from Eastern Europe and sell them to a felon in Elsberry, a town about 50 miles northwest of St. Louis.

Agents of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms raided the home of the felon, James Carmi, in October 2000, seizing a stockpile of 800 automatic rifles and other weapons.

In November, an Ohio arms trader, Keith Baranski, was convicted of using fraudulent documents in a conspiracy with Carmi to import the arsenal. In the trial, in U.S. District Court in St. Louis, Baranski testified that he traveled to Bulgaria and signed contracts with Kintex officials to acquire weapons.

Documents in the case, reviewed by the Post-Dispatch, show that Baranski obtained U.S. government approval to import more than 16,000 automatic weapons from Kintex Shareholding Company of Sofia.

However, before the scheme unraveled, Baranski was only able to get 46 machine guns from Kintex, prosecutors said. ATF agents raided a warehouse in February and seized another 372 machine guns that were awaiting him. Most of them came from Bulgaria.

Assistant U.S. attorney Jim Martin said Baranski's import scheme remains under investigation. He said he cannot comment on whether Kintex or other East European weapons dealers are under scrutiny.

Authorities say it is unclear to whom Carmi might have sold the weapons once he obtained them. Carmi has said he routinely sold machine guns to collectors and people who get a kick out of shooting them.

The illicit import scheme has come to light at a time when Bulgaria says it is tightening controls on arms trading as it seeks to join the European Union. The country also is planning to privatize Kintex.

Kintex is well known to groups like Human Rights Watch, a human rights organization based in New York that monitors international sales of weapons.

"Kintex has a history of involvement in illegal and questionable deals," said Lisa Misol, arms researcher for Human Rights Watch. "The company says it has changed its stripes, and recent improvements in Bulgaria's legal controls make it harder to carry out illegal deals. But given the company's background we all need to keep a close eye on what Kintex is up to, including after it's privatized," Misol said.

Kintex officials and Bulgaria's ambassador to the United States, Elena Poptodorova, did not return calls seeking comment.

Classified information

The Bulgarian Embassy rebuffed written questions about how many automatic weapons Kintex shipped to the United States last year or to whom they were shipped. Nor would it say what Kintex's annual revenue was in 2001. Those things are "classified information," the embassy said.

Documents filed in Baranski's court case offer no sign that Kintex officials were aware that his scheme to import the guns was built on fraudulent documents.

Indeed, those bogus documents also won approval from a U.S. government agency, the ATF.

Under U.S. law, a person can import automatic weapons for demonstration or sale to a law enforcement agency, and that is what Baranski claimed he was doing.

But prosecutors contended that Baranski in fact only planned to sell the weapons to James Carmi of Elsberry.

The potential size of Baranski's importation scheme was startling, law enforcement officials said. In all, Baranski, 32, sought approval to import more than 90,000 weapons from Kintex and other companies in Bulgaria and Poland, prosecutors said.

Mysterious company

Just what Kintex does is unclear. The embassy said its business includes engineering, marketing and import and export of "special equipment." It made no mention of arms.

Yet it is Kintex's arms trading business that has drawn intense scrutiny in the West for more than two decades. After a Turkish national shot Pope John Paul II in an attempted assassination in 1981, an Italian judge collected testimony about Kintex's link to the would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca, and about the company's role in exchanging weapons for heroin from Turkey.

A longtime Kintex employee, Abuzer Ugurlu, was a major drug trafficker who owned a villa in Varna on the Black Sea, according to "Octopus," a book on the heroin trade by author Claire Sterling. Ugurlu helped Ali Agca get out of prison in Istanbul and move to Bulgaria before he traveled to Rome to carry out the assassination attempt, the book says.

Ali Agca also told Italian authorities that Kintex provided funds for the assassination plot. Another Turk with links to Kintex, Bekir Celenk, and three Bulgarian diplomats were among those accused of plotting the assassination.

Ali Agca's testimony in the trial in Rome was discredited when he declared he was Jesus Christ. Celenk died of a heart attack before the trial was completed, and the diplomats were acquitted.

U.S. takes note

Yet the Italian investigation caused U.S. officials to sit up and take notice. In 1984, the director of the Drug Enforcement Administration testified to a congressional committee that, beginning in 1970, Kintex had sold heroin and morphine base to European traffickers at the same time it sold guns throughout the Middle East.

"In virtually every report available to the DEA since 1970 about narcotics trafficking in and through Bulgaria, Kintex is mentioned as a facilitator of transactions," said the director, John Lawn.

Kintex was a major part of a drug pipeline that brought heroin from Turkey through Europe and into the United States, he said.

The DEA even severed relations with Bulgaria over the matter, though it resumed cooperating with Bulgaria after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

A DEA spokeswoman said the agency would not comment on whether the agency continues to believe Kintex is involved in the heroin trade.

Strange bedfellows

Arms dealing, like politics, can make strange bedfellows, and Kintex is a good example. Kintex has supplied arms to militant groups around the world and across the political spectrum. Some of Kintex's deals during the Cold War put it in concert with countries ideologically opposed to Bulgaria and the Communist Warsaw Pact.

In the 1970s, for instance, Kintex shipped weapons to a South African arms company in violation of a U.N. embargo, according to the International Action Network on Small Arms, a London-based organization that seeks to stop the proliferation guns. The South African company used at least some of those weapons to equip rebels fighting communist-backed governments in southern Africa, the London group said.

Kintex also was a major arms supplier for the Palestine Liberation Organization in the 1970s and 1980s, the group said.

After the Persian Gulf War, the Bulgarian government was forced in 1992 to admit that Kintex had sold $15 million in arms to Iraq, violating a U.N. embargo on arms sales to that country.

Visitor to the arms bazaar

Since its heyday in the Cold War, Bulgaria's arms industry, once a workhorse of the Balkan nation's economy, has fallen on hard times, reportedly laying off many workers.

Amid the turmoil, Baranski, a Gulf War veteran and the son of a former Cleveland police officer, traveled to Bulgaria seven times between 1999 and 2001 to arrange deals with officials of Kintex and other companies.

On one visit to the Black Sea port of Varna, he walked through numerous warehouses holding aircraft, tanks and thousands of crates of AK-47s, he said when he testified in his own defense in court. Bulgarian manufacturers have long made the AK-47 under license from its originators, the Russians.

In the early 1990s, Baranski had shown interest in Russia. He had studied Russian at the University of Ohio, and in the early 1990s he was arrested with a Russian-language military manual in his possession. He also had a Russian girlfriend.

But by the time he was traveling to Bulgaria, Baranski became wary of arms dealing in Russia. He told Carmi in a letter that the AK-47s he planned to import would sell "like hotcakes," but he warned that the "Russians demand kickbacks every step of the way."

In the end, he said, he steered clear of Russia and hoped the Bulgarians would help him get automatic weapons that the Russians refused to ship directly to the United States.

Phony documents

Baranski claimed on import documents that the weapons he was buying from Kintex were intended for demonstration or sale to law enforcement agencies. To support his claim, he submitted to the ATF a letter from a small town police chief from Missouri's Audrain County, Jeff Knipp, requesting demonstration of dozens of models.

But Knipp admitted in federal court that he had no need of the guns and that he took a bribe - an automatic weapon for himself - to write the bogus letter so Baranski could import them. In fact, Baranski intended all along to sell the weapons to Carmi, who has convictions for marijuana distribution, burglary and other crimes, prosecutors said.

Using a fraudulent document is standard operating procedure in the illegal arms trade, said Misol, the Human Rights Watch researcher.

"False documents are a convenient excuse for everybody," she said. "This is a microcosm of how things happen on a larger scale."

For example, Kintex sent weapons to Croatia in 1992 - again in violation of a United Nations embargo - under an "end-user" certificate showing they were headed to Bolivia at the request of a Bolivian general, Misol said. As it turned out, the general did not exist, she said.

The bogus Bolivian certificate itself did not prove that Kintex knew of the scheme. But, she said, "At the least, there was a complete lack of responsibility in performing the most basic checks."

In the Missouri case, prosecutors said that it was extremely unlikely that Knipp's town, Farber, with about 400 residents and three part-time police officers, would ever need the heavy weapons requested in Knipp's letter.

They included dozens of types of automatic firepower, including belt-fed machine guns as large as .50-caliber, and silencers.

Baranski also used Knipp's letter to try to import five Yak-B machine guns, powerful Russian weapons that are motor-driven and typically mounted on helicopters. Baranski said Kintex was to sell him the Yak-Bs for $3,500 apiece.

But by August 2000, ATF agents were investigating Baranski's plans to import the Yak-B. They denied his request, and Kintex never got to ship the big guns to the United States.
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