THE MYSTERIOUS unmarked jetliner that was parked at Bratislava airport until suddenly departing on March 11 belongs to an American company that owns other aircraft used by the CIA.
According to the records of the Federal Aviation Administration, the Boeing 737-300, with the registration number N-34315, is owned by the Wilmington Trust Company, a financial and leasing firm located in Delaware.
The same company in 2006 also purchased a Gulfstream executive jet that has been used so often to transport suspected terrorists abroad or into the CIA's prison system that it has been dubbed the "Guantanamo Bay Express".
"It is one of the most notorious prisoner transport aircraft used by the CIA," concluded a report by the European Parliament in November 2006.
Two independent sources contacted by The Slovak Spectator said that N-34315, along with two Boeing 767s, N-731VA and N-742VA, had been flying into Bratislava en route between Washington and the Middle East for at least two years. One source said that the Slovak intelligence service, the SIS, had been informed of the flights, as had current Prime Minister Robert Fico and former Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda.
Neither politician responded to a request for comment, while SIS spokesman Karol Sorby said the service would not comment on the matter.
Bill Benintende, a spokesman for Wilmington, said his company only acted as a trustee for the real owner of the Bratislava aircraft. "I don't have any knowledge of the aircraft in question," he told The Slovak Spectator. "Our role is an administrative one. I don't know what our planes are doing at any point in time or how they are being used. We don't discuss our clients." He also denied any knowledge of the "Guantanamo Bay Express" or CIA flights, and said that "this isn't something I would comment on in any event".
Operator works for US government
The 737 that was parked at Bratislava airport is operated by Vision Airlines, a Nevada corporation with bases in Las Vegas and Baghdad, whose main contractor is the US government. In 2006, according to European flight records, the plane was used on flights from Baghdad to Budapest and then Shannon Airport in Ireland and Washington. Other Vision Air aircraft flew between Kabul and Frankfurt.
The aeroplane was spotted by enthusiasts at Bratislava airport on several occasions last year. In November 2007 it was also spotted crossing Norwegian and Danish airspace, and was described by the Aftenbladet newspaper of Stavanger, Norway, as a CIA flight.
"My sources at air traffic control told me that the planes were flying mostly through Budapest and Bratislava, and mostly to and from Baghdad," said Jan-Petter Helgesen, the journalist who covered the story. "The owner of the plane [Wilmington] is a private company that works very closely with the CIA."
Slovak and American officials offered little in the way of explanation for the plane's presence in Bratislava.
"According to our information, this is a commercial, charter airplane," said US Embassy spokesman Keith Hughes. "We have no further information."
"Everything has been done in line with Slovak and international legal norms," said Interior Ministry spokesman Erik Tomáš. "We will not comment on any details whatsoever."
Slovakia a way-stop?
According to the EP report, which examined the use of European countries by the CIA for the transport and illegal detention of prisoners, Slovakia served only once as a refueling stop for CIA flights until 2007. However, the report described the plane's operator, Vision Airlines, as the sister company of a CIA shell firm, and said it operated another Boeing 737 that was used for CIA flights in 2005 on the Frankfurt-Baghdad route.
The world.content.news website claimed that the three Vision Airlines aircraft seen in Bratislava had made a total of 197 refueling stops in Central and Eastern Europe from May 2006 through June 2007, rotating between Bratislava, Budapest, and Bucharest and Constanta in Romania.
After leaving Bratislava on March 11, N-34315 was spotted the same day on a remote landing strip at Vienna Airport. On the following day, the Hungarian daily Népszabadság ran a picture of the aircraft and claimed it was being used to ferry terror suspects from South Asia and the Middle East to the United States.
A spokesman for Ferihegy airport in Budapest told the daily that charter flights from the United States often stop in Budapest on their way to Iraq, and said a Boeing 767 had landed for refueling there on March 11.
Vladimír Palko, who served as interior minister in the Dzurinda government until February 2006, told The Slovak Spectator that the CIA had not used Bratislava airport while he was in office. "I don't know of any overflights or landings that were done with the approval of the Slovak government," he said. Pavol Prokopovič, who served as transport minister in the 2002-2006 Dzurinda government, stated "with absolute confidence" that he had no knowledge of CIA flights in Slovakia while he was in office.
Palko added that his ministry and other civil authorities might not be aware if the CIA was using Bratislava on an unofficial basis. "Intelligence services use intelligence methods," he said without elaborating.
17. Mar 2008 at 0:00 | Tom Nicholson