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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Says Kiev Sells Planes to Traffickers

KIEV -- The Ukrainian government, through its state-owned aircraft factory here, is engaged in a series business deals with Colombian cocaine cartels, selling and leasing a small fleet of Soviet-designed military cargo planes to drug traffickers, the Los Angeles Times has learned.

The Antonov-32Bs, twin-engine turboprops regarded by U.S. anti-drug officials as "the ultimate smugglers' plane," have been employed along traditional drug routes from Colombia, Peru, Panama and Mexico, according to U.S. and Colombian law enforcement sources and former partners in the Ukrainian aircraft ventures.

The Antonov factory, which operates under the authority of Ukraine's Machine Building and Defense Conversion Ministry, retains legal ownership of at least six of about a dozen Antonovs known to be operating in Colombia. As a result, the now-ailing state-owned factory stands to profit from what appear to be continuing business arrangements with traffickers.

"It would be like [in the U.S.] NASA selling rockets to drug lords," said a U.S. source familiar with the Ukrainian transactions.

The United States has privately warned Ukraine that drug runners are acquiring its planes and has urged Kiev to "be very careful whom you sell them to," said a senior Clinton administration official.

Equipping drug traffickers with planes that increase their capacity for delivering cocaine to U.S. markets is a threat to U.S. national security interests, the official said.

American sources say there are few signs of official action by Ukraine to reverse the deals. At least six new sales were still pending last month, a Colombian aircraft broker involved in the transactions said in an interview.

Ukrainian officials Tuesday denied the allegations, Reuters reported. Foreign Ministry spokesman Yury Serheyev did not dispute reports that Ukrainian-made planes were flying in Latin America, but he rejected suggestions that they were being sold to criminals.

"The government is not involved in deals with drug traffickers," Reuters quoted him as saying. "These are conjectures with too many 'maybes.'"

U.S. officials say they are unsure how many Antonovs are actually operating in Colombia either in legitimate or illicit trades. Colombian aviation records reviewed by the Times show nine are registered, but Colombian national police say they have spotted at least 12. Canadian authorities documented the transit of 20 Antonovs through their airports last year alone. All of those planes are now believed to be in Colombia, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

U.S. law enforcement officials believe the unaccounted-for Antonovs also ended up in the hands of traffickers.

Last summer, Ukrainian Security Service officials sought U.S. law enforcement assistance in locating the Panama planes and were informed by U.S. agents that additional Antonovs had also been sent to Colombia, where they had ended up in the hands of known and suspected drug traffickers.

Various Ukrainian government agencies have routinely approved the deals and authorized export of the state-owned planes, according to an official of Ukraine's Transportation Ministry who said he examined records of the transactions at the request of the Times.

"The factory cannot sell planes without [state] permission," said Viktor Reznik, chief of the air registry for the Transportation Ministry.

The Antonov factory is a prime economic asset of the financially ailing Ukraine. Besides the light cargo class AN-32B, the factory manufactures more than 100 kinds of aircraft ranging from small crop-dusters to the world's largest cargo jet, the AN-225 Mriya.

Interviewed in his Kiev office, Reznik said: "If our planes are used by traffickers, it will be very troubling to us. ... But how can a factory, having sold a plane, know it will be used to transport drugs?"