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Eyebrows raised over mystery Russian plane at Wilson



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On the evening of December 17, some 30 minutes before Wilson Airport was due to close for the day, a private twin-engine jet with foreign registration touched down from Khartoum, Sudan.

Five people were on board the British-manufactured Hawker 800XP registration M-VITO, according to the Director General of Kenya Civil Aviation Authority, Gilbert Kibe.

“The aircraft arrived at Wilson from Khartoum on December 17, 2018 at 1956hrs with a total of five on board. It departed for JKIA on December 20, 2018 at 1635hrs and later the same day at 1750hrs, it departed JKIA for Ndjamena- Chad with a total of seven on board,” the KCAA boss told the Nation.

Wilson Airport closes at 8.30pm meaning the aircraft arrived, just 34 minutes before the closing time.

Three days later on December 20, the aircraft left Wilson Airport for Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) at 4.35pm.

Slightly more than an hour later, the plane took off for Ndjamena, the capital of the Republic of Chad.

Nothing strange about the plane’s movement except that the particular aircraft is reportedly owned by Yevgeny Prigozhin, 57, a shadowy Russian and Kremlin insider with close links to President Vladmir Putin and whose name has prominently featured in the ongoing investigations into the 2016 US election meddling by agents of Moscow.

Mr Prigozhin, a secretive businessman known as Putin’s cook/chef for his Kremlin catering work, was sanctioned by the US in 2016 and indicted in 2018 by Special Counsel Robert Muller who is investigating the Russian interference in the 2016 US elections.

According to a European Union monitoring site for aircraft operators, M-VITO is Mr Prigozhin’s private plane but owned by Beratex Group Ltd, a Russian company.

While there is still no confirmation that Mr Prigozhin was aboard the aircraft, the fact that a plane reportedly linked to a person who has been sanctioned by the US landed on Kenyan soil and did so shortly after the US opened their airspace to Kenyan flag carrier, Kenya Airways, has caused anxiety among airport operators and among some individuals working with the security agencies.

“The plane was expected. Most likely it was on the invitation of a security agency in Kenya or some powerful individuals in the country, and which explains why there has been no word from our security agencies. If it had happened without their knowledge I can bet this place (Wilson and JKIA) would have been turned upside down and a few people sent home or arrested,” an operator at Wilson Airport told the Nation.

When contacted, Mr Kibe said that upon landing, the aircraft was directed to customs and immigration “where they positioned and switched off the engines. Later they taxied out and parked in Apron 4 until yesterday (December 20).”

According to the KCAA boss, as the sector regulator, that is all they know about the aircraft.

But Nation has also established that the logistics of M-VITO’s landing at Wilson Airport and later at JKIA were being handled by a ground handling and logistics firm located in Cargo Village, JKIA.

With regard to the time when the plane landed and departed, our source added that “the person seems to prefer travelling at night. Maybe he doesn’t like to be spotted.”

Given the notoriety of the reported owner of the plane, its flight was being tracked. On December 12, the plane had reportedly flown from Berlin, Germany to Beirut, Lebanon, then on to Cairo.

“M-VITO disappeared from the tracker near Cairo at 39,000ft, headed south,” a twitter user, Juha Keskinen, who was tracking the plane said.

Speculation is rife that Mr Prigozhin, who is also behind Wagner Group, a controversial Kremlin-linked private military contractor, which is active in the Central African Republic, may have been in the country to seal some security deals.

His company Wagner Group was linked to the killing of three Russian journalists in July.

The journalist had travelled to investigate the company which has been very active on the ground in the Central African Republic.

Mr Prigozhin is among 13 Russians charged by the US Justice Department with trying to sway the 2016 election.

He has been accused of being behind the Internet Research Agency (IRA), the Russian troll factory that spearheaded the efforts to meddle in the 2016 US elections.

In November, Bloomberg reported that Mr Prigozhin has become President Putin’s point man in efforts to reach across Africa by “offering security, arms training and electioneering services in exchange for mining rights and other opportunities.”

“He’s already active in or moving into 10 countries that Russia’s military already has relationships with: the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Libya, Madagascar, Angola, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and the Central African Republic,” the Bloomberg report said.

According to the Bloomberg report, Kenya and Russia are already co-operating in development of nuclear power technology.

“After the Soviet Union’s 1991 collapse, Russia’s presence in Africa dwindled dramatically; now the region is a focus for Kremlin efforts to reassert its geopolitical prowess and open new markets for domestic companies hamstrung by Western sanctions,” reported Bloomberg.