Published: January 24, 2020
One of the passengers of the Ukrainian jet shot down by Iranian missiles earlier this month was a businesswoman who was the boss of two companies named in a UN report for links to the dark arms trade that fuels the protracted civil war in Libya.
Olena Malakhova, 38, had secured a seat in the second row of Ukrainian International Airlines flight 752 from Tehran to Kiev, according to a seat map of the plane seen by CNN.
She was one of only two Ukrainian passengers on the plane, which crashed shortly after takeoff from the Iranian capital on January 8, killing everyone on board. Iran says it shot down the plane by mistake.
Malakhova was a director of a company called SkyAviaTrans, based in Ukraine, and co-owner of a related company called Volaris Business, headquartered in Edinburgh, Scotland.
The companies present themselves as passenger planes and air cargo companies. The slogan on the Volaris Business website reads “more than a passenger and freight business” while the motto of SkyAviaTrans is “Anything, Anytime, Anywhere, Professionally”.
Since August 2018, Malakhova has been listed at Companies House, the UK’s official business register, as one of the two beneficial owners of Volaris. Malakhova was also director of SkyAviaTrans, a spokesperson for the company told CNN.
The companies’ only cargo plane was destroyed in a drone attack in Libya in August 2019. The plane, an Ilyushin Il-76TD, owned by Volaris and operated by SkyAviaTrans, was targeted by forces loyal to Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar soon after landing. in the coastal fortress of Misrata, its rivals. His crew of eight survived the strike.
SkyAviaTrans and Volaris said at the time that the flight was carrying humanitarian aid from the Turkish capital Ankara, an assertion supported by the Ukrainian government. However, at a press conference after the incident, the so-called Libyan national army said it detonated because it was carrying military equipment intended for its enemies in the government of national accord recognized by the United Nations in Tripoli.
Arms embargo flouted “blatantly”
In its latest report on the United Nations arms embargo on Libya, published in December, a group of United Nations experts said that some of the agency’s member states, including Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, had systematically violated the ban and “blatantly and sometimes blatantly supplied arms, using little effort to disguise the source. “
The report says that much of the weapons have been sent in the form of drone parts, which have dominated the fighting in recent years. Drone parts were often disguised as car parts, he suggested.
UN experts have examined the attack on the SkyAviaTrans / Volaris aircraft. They concluded that the light payload for the aircraft type and the anomalies in its documentation meant that “the cargo was large-volume, relatively low-weight military equipment, such as the fuselage and wings.” unmanned combat aerial vehicles ”, also known as drones.
It was “neither realistic nor credible” that the Libyan government would need so many auto parts in such a short time and that it would have transported them in such an expensive way, the panel said.
A German company that chartered the planes on behalf of the Libyan government has been found guilty of the UN embargo. The panel did not go so far as to find SkyAviaTrans and Volaris in violation of the arms ban but noted that the documentation of the aircraft on the cargo explicitly stated that its load did not contain “NO DG (dangerous goods), NO AMMO, NO WEAPON ”. Such a designation was suspect, experts said.
“Such information is not routinely provided or required unless it is intended to disguise the military nature of the cargo,” said the panel in its report to the UN. SkyAviaTrans and Volaris’ protocols for conducting due diligence were “totally inadequate and unsuitable for their purpose,” said the experts.
The UN report does not explicitly say that Malakhova knew that her companies’ plane was carrying illicit weapons. But it says that Volaris took responsibility for customs permits and other documents on flights operated by SkyAviatrans, citing a contract between the two entities. The contract was signed on behalf of Volaris by “O.M.”, said the United Nations panel, which was listed as a “person with significant control” at Companies House. This list, which is accessible to the public, names Olena Malakhova in its entirety.
Maksym Pryokhdko, a former ground handling manager for SkyAviaTrans, told CNN by phone that although the company has a permit to ship dangerous goods, they may include solvents and chemicals. SkyAviaTrans spokesman declined to comment on the report from UN experts. Malakhova’s husband, Dmitry Salikhov, who answered a phone number on the Volaris website, said he was too upset to speak. He did not respond to a follow-up email.
Less than a week before the plane was hit in Libya, Ukraine banned its carriers from traveling to the country “due to” the worsening security situation, “” noted UN experts. SkyAviaTrans and Volaris had obtained a waiver from the ban, claiming that they worked for the Libyan Red Crescent, according to the UN panel. In its report of December 9, the panel said it was “not yet convinced of the truth of the documentation provided by SkyAviatrans to the Ukrainian authorities to obtain the exemption and is continuing its investigation”.
A Libyan Red Crescent spokesperson told CNN that he had no ties to SkyAviaTrans or Volaris, or to Malakhova. “We have no connection to the subject of this report … the Libyan Red Crescent has nothing to do with it.”
Purpose of trip to Iran unknown
It is unclear what Malakhova was doing in Tehran earlier this year. SkyAviaTrans spokesman said the company had no business in Iran and was unaware that its head was in the country at the time. Malakhova, the spokesman said, has spent the past few months finding funds to replace the company’s destroyed plane.
Flight records from the airline tracking site flightradar24 show that between May and August 2019, when the plane exploded, it made more than 30 flights between Ukraine, Turkey and Libya. Before that, the plane had flown between the United Arab Emirates and Aden, in Yemen, where UAE fighters were involved in a Saudi-led effort to overthrow Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, carrying out 13 trips in November and December 2018.
It had also made half a dozen flights to Afghanistan that year after the United Arab Emirates announced a new plan to train Afghan forces in combat with Islamic insurgents. The SkyAviaTrans spokesperson did not provide any information on the flights, or who chartered them.
Two former CNN colleagues, contacted by phone in Ukraine, said that Malakhova’s family was devastated by the news. One described Malakhova, who was married to two young sons, as “polite and professional.”
Friends of Malakhova on Facebook expressed their sorrow over his death. One of them posted a message saying, “This flight took you straight to the sky. I hope you will be calm there. “ source