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FEBRUARY 14, 2000 VOL. 155 NO. 6

Mystery Men
India jails six gunrunners, but fails to answer vexing questions

The trial is over, but the mystery remains. A Calcutta court last week found British arms dealer Peter Bleach and a flight crew of five Latvians guilty of conspiring to make war against India. For parachuting a huge cache of weapons and ammunition over West Bengal in 1995, the men were sentenced to life imprisonment. But closing the case hasn't resolved many of the key questions surrounding the sensational, four-year-old tale.

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Who exactly was meant to receive the 300 assault rifles, 25 rocket launchers, 80 anti-tank rocket-propelled grenades, hundreds of ordinary hand grenades, seven anti-tank guns and 25,000 rounds of assorted ammunition that drifted to the ground beneath three huge parachutes? India's Central Bureau of Investigation contends they were destined for the Hindu fringe sect Ananda Marg, whose headquarters is in the remote district of Purulia, near where the drop occurred. The court, however, rejected the claim as unproven.

For years Indians have followed the case attentively. It has a little of everything: stealth, arms deals, foreign intrigue. It also represented a severe public embarrassment for New Delhi. The plane carrying the weapons was able to penetrate deep into India's territory, exposing chinks in the national air-defense system. "Never in the history of India has such a crime been committed," said trial judge P.K. Biswas.

The central character is Bleach, a dapper man whose career has included stints as a prison warden, a private detective and a non-commissioned officer in the British Army intelligence corps. He now plans to appeal. "I have lost the battle," he told Time just after the verdict, "but I will fight to win the war." As Bleach stood his ground in the courtroom behind a pair of sunglasses, a well-pressed blazer and a regimental tie, the Latvian flight crew he had hired were in tears. "Believe me, we are innocent," said Alexander Klichine, captain of the ill-fated aircraft that made the drop. "We were fooled into this deal, and now we are deep in hell."

The full story of the arms drop may never emerge. On Dec. 12, 1995, the aircraft left Bulgaria with Bleach, the Latvians and the alleged mastermind of the plot, a Danish national named Neils Christian Neilson. Also on board the Russian-built Antonov-26 were 60 crates of armaments, listed on the manifest as technical equipment for the Bangladesh government. According to Bleach, Neilson didn't tell the crew what the cargo actually was. They refueled in Iran and eventually landed in Karachi, Pakistan, where another man, identified only as Deepak, came on board with three large parachute containers. They took off again on Dec. 17 and flew from Karachi to India. After logging in with Calcutta's air traffic control, they headed east, but an hour later were flying back to Calcutta. En route, the drop was made over Purulia.

Some Indian defense analysts speculate that the real destination was not the Ananda Marg fundamentalists in Purulia but Kachin rebels in northern Burma on the border with India and China who are fighting the Rangoon government. Bleach, for his part, says the aircraft simply got lost. "I am fairly sure the weapons were not meant for the Ananda Marg," he says. "Neilson messed up the drop." (Ananda Marg spokesman Bhaveshananda Avadhuta also denies that the arms had anything to do with the group.) Bleach says Neilson used his own portable navigational equipment after the Latvians became suspicious when the parachutes were loaded. The Latvians' lawyer, Milon Mukherji, says the drop can't have been intended for anyone in India, arguing that people don't buy weapons they cannot use. "The Ananda Marg could be interested in pistols or even a few assault rifles, but not anti-tank weapons and rocket launchers," says Mukherji.

After refueling at Calcutta, the aircraft continued on to Phuket, Thailand, where Deepak disappeared. Bleach and the Latvians say Neilson kept them in a secluded hotel until the return journey on Dec. 21. Heading back to Karachi through Calcutta on their scheduled flight plan, they say they were pushed south to Madras by strong winds. As they headed up across the Indian landmass, they were ordered by air traffic control to land in Bombay. Neilson hasn't been seen since Dec. 22, when he walked away from Bombay airport.

Bleach insists he was in contact throughout the operation with Britain's Special Branch police and Defense Ministry officials, who in turn were passing on information to the Indian authorities. He says he expected the aircraft to be detained at any time, but did not expect to be held himself. During the trial, a British Special Branch officer conceded that notes of a conversation he had with Bleach had been altered on the advice of "the security services."

Was there a coverup? Was it a bungled operation? And what happened to all of the weapons? Some of the cases of arms on the manifest were not accounted for in the Purulia drop. "This is a major international conspiracy to destabilize India," concludes Loknath Behera, the police superintendent in charge of the investigation. "It has exposed major gaps in our security. So we had to fix these guys." No confusion there.

Reported by Subir Bhaumik/Calcutta

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