The scandal which broke out yesterday had been in the offing since March 19, when a giant AN-124 military transport plane (the type known as “Ruslan”) made an authorized refueling stop at Baku’s Bina airport. Owned by the Russian air carrier Polyot, and arriving from Kazakhstan, the plane was found to carry six disassembled MIG-21 fighter planes and other military equipment for an as yet unidentified customer. Represented as scrap metal in the commercial documents, the cargo was accompanied by a 30-strong group of Russian airmen, military technicians and “suspected mercenaries.” The Azerbaijani authorities impounded the cargo and detained the crew and accompanying group.
From March 19-23, the Russians claimed that the plane was en route from Kazakhstan to Pyongyang, North Korea. However, North Korea lies due east from Kazakhstan, whereas Azerbaijan lies due west. On March 23, the Russian group–on instructions from Russia’s Foreign Ministry via the embassy in Baku–changed the story, claiming that the plane was en route to Bratislava, Slovakia, ostensibly on a charter contract to a Czech firm. Also on March 23, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s chief spokesman Vladimir Rakhmanin gave in Moscow the version implicating Slovakia and termed the cargo “Kazakhstani.” While claiming to know the plane’s exact destination, Rakhmanin claimed complete ignorance about the nature of its cargo. It was at this point that the story broke into the open.
Azerbaijan’s presidential adviser on national security, Vafa Guluzade, declared that that the plane and cargo seemed bound for Serbia. The delivery’s timing would suggest an attempt to shore up Serbian air defenses before prospective intervention by NATO. In Kazakhstan, authorities confirmed that the plane had taken off from Taldy-Kurgan, in the Almaty region, but civilian and military authorities alike had no knowledge of the military cargo. Slovakia’s Foreign and Defense Ministries had no information either. Russia’s Foreign Ministry and its Baku embassy have officially protested against the seizure of plane and crew by Azerbaijan and are demanding their immediate release (Turan, Reuters, AP, Itar-Tass, March 23).
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