The Ukrainian cargo plane which crashed on landing at a rugged Eretrian airstrip was probably carrying Kalashnikov automatic rifles, air industry and government sources in Kyiv have reported.
The military Il-78 exploded while on final approach to Asmera airfield on July 16. The converted tanker aircraft was destroyed, killing nine Ukrainian crew members and one Bulgarian passenger.
The plane converted to cargo carrying, had been loaded the night before with some 40 tons of unspecified freight in Burgos, Bulgaria.
When contacted for comment a government spokesman here asserted that Kyiv had no knowledge as to what sort of freight was on board the jet.
'We have no idea what was on that airplane for the very simple reason that it's not our aircraft,' said Konstantin Sivrenko Ukraine Ministry of Defense spokesman. 'We leased it to the Ukrainian Transportation Company (UTC) last year, which for its part sells the usage of the aircraft to the freight owner. The identity of who charters it from UTC is by definition a commercial se-cret, and we do not have access to that information.'
But evidence here and abroad points directly towards military involvement in the shipment.
Chartered in January 1998 from UTC by the Bulgarian company Air Sofia, the Ukrainian Il-78 was carrying freight directly consigned to the Eretrian Ministry of Defense, the Bulgarian newspaper 24 Hours reported.
The July 16 UTC flight was the tenth in a series of twice monthly missions by the aircraft to deliver small arms to the newly independent government of Eretria, it said. Other publications including the New York Times repeated the report.
Air industry professionals here agreed that the probability that automatic rifles were on board appears high.
'Of course they were carrying weapons,' a retired Ukrainian Air Force colonel and former UTC pilot told the Post. 'Why else would some one fly a cargo plane to Eretria?'
UTC President Nikolai Mayak declined to respond to repeated Post inquiries.
Ukrainian media reports suggested the Ukrainian government was directly involved in planning the flight.
Ukrainian government officials were aboard on the first leg of the flight, Interfax reported. Ukrainian diplomatic intervention was required to get the plane down to Burgos, Bulgaria.
'The flight was unexpected,' a Ukrainian Embassy official told an Interfax reporter in Sofia. 'It took us 40 minutes to settle tensions.'
A government monopoly created to sell the services of Ukrainian military cargo planes to overseas customers, UTC operates hulking cargo jets worldwide, usually still equipped with distinctive tail cannon originally installed to fight off NATO fighters. The men aboard are similarly often civilian only in name.
A Ukrainian Defense Ministry release identified the Il-78's pilot as 'Lieutenant Colonel V. Zeleny'. Prior to flying for UTC he was the Assistant Commander of a Zaporizhia-based Il-78 squadron, it said.
Reports varied as to whether Zeleny was still a serving member of the Ukrainian armed forces at the time of his death. The other eight crew members were former Ukrainian Air Force officers and NCOs working as civilian employees of UTC, government and industry sources agreed.
'Ukrainian military pilots are by no means wealthy people, and they are not against flying for commercial companies as long at those flights are legal,' Ukraine Defense Minister Valery Korol' told reporters.
The tenth casualty, a cargo escort, was a Bulgarian civilian.
Why he and nine Ukrainians lost their lives in a fiery explosion on the rugged East African airstrip is also unanswered.
The Bulgarian press speculated that the IL-78 was destroyed by a bomb or missile.
But spokesmen for the Ukrainian Commission investigating the accident say they are looking at adverse weather and flight conditions as causes.
'It is a very difficult airfield, very mountainous,' Oleh Bykov Ukraine Ministry of Emergency Situations spokesman told the Post. 'The initial indications from the debris on the ground are that flying conditions were a factor in the accident.'
An unequivocal final conclusion may be more difficult to reach. The IL-78's black box had disappeared from the crash site by the time the Ukrainian commission reached it, Bykov noted.
'The Africans appear to have taken it,' he said. 'It was gone by the time our people had arrived. So there's no real way to tell for what actually happened.'
The insurers of the Ukrainian cargo plane confirmed this week that crew family members would probably receive some form of compensation.
When reached for comment Olexander Dovbyschuk, President of the Ukrainian People's Insurance Company (PIC) declined to exclude the possibility that crash resulted from crew or control tower error. PIC insured aircraft and cargo for $22 million.
Reportedly reinsured by Lloyds and others, that protection includes even guns in the freight compartment, he added.
'If there were any weapons on board, and it was certified and legalized, it would be a standard freight for the insurance company,' Dovbyschuk said. But not acts of war, he noted.
The Eretria – Ethiopia border region erupted into conflict this May after Ethiopia accused its former province of annexing Ethiopian territory. A flurry of international diplomacy kept the conflict at a relatively low level but with both sides worried over a tenuous balance in military equipment tensions in the area remain high.
Besides the doomed IL-78 in Eretria, other Ukrainian aircraft have suffered accidents recently. On July 13 a Ukrainian military cargo IL-76 crashed in the United Arab Emirates shortly after take-off, killing nine crew members.
The Ministry of Transportation grounded Ukraine's IL-76 and IL-78 fleet on July 13. That evening an Aerosweet Boeing 737 made an emergency landing at the Boryspil airport shortly after taking off en route to Tel-Aviv. An engine fault caused the aborted take off An Aerosweet -leased Yak-42 crashed into a mountain during a difficult approach to the Saloniki Greece airport last December 17, killing all on board.