Meet operative PP0277: A secret agent – or just a vulture hungry for dead camel?

Sudan says he’s an Israeli operative – but his handlers say he’s too easily distracted for that. Matthew Kalman reports on a spy thriller

Shortly before the mysterious bombing of a weapons factory in Khartoum in October, an Israeli operative code name PP0277 left a remote site near Sde Boker in Israel’s Negev desert.

Carrying a sophisticated tracking device concealed in a box on his leg, he made his way south across the Sinai desert, over the Red Sea, and into Sudan. On 1 December, however, his mission came to an abrupt halt. Having covered up to 350 miles a day, PP0277 had stopped moving at a village near the Sudanese town of Krinkh.

It was on Thursday that his fate finally became clear when the mayor of Krinkh, Hussein al-A’ali, announced that PP0277 had been captured – declaring him to be an Israeli spy “capable of taking photos and sending them back to Israel”.

It was then that Ohad Hatzofe, the Israeli who sent PP0277 on his fateful flight, did not know whether to laugh or cry. For PP0277 is not a top Mossad agent, but a young griffon vulture who, Mr Hatzofe insists, was simply making its semi-annual winter migration to Africa.

Far from sporting a history of directing spying missions inside enemy territory, Mr Hatzofe is an avian ecologist for Israel’s Nature and Parks Authority. He has tagged more than 1,000 migrating birds in the past 20 years, all as part of a major international project to track and preserve rare species among the billion-plus birds that fly north, then south, over Israel each year.

Like all such creatures, PP0277 wore tags clearly marking him in English as part of the academic research, asking anyone who found him to contact Mr Hatzofe. And as Mr Hatzofe told The Independent: “It’s not very secret, marking a supposed spy with the words ‘Tel Aviv University’ and my email address.”

Nor is their reconnaissance information confidential. The birds are fitted with tiny boxes containing GPS and GSM transmitters with a solar energy panel and three small antennae. The data from the tagged birds is uploaded to Movebank, an accessible international database linked to Google Earth.

Spying missions between the two countries are not unlikely. Sudan is thought by the West to be helping Iran ship arms through Egypt to Gaza to supply Hamas. For its part, Israel is believed to have launched air strikes on Sudanese targets in 2009, 2011 and earlier this year.

But even if the Israeli authorities were to conceive such an outlandish espionage mission, Mr Hatzofe said it would proved somewhat bird-brained as the feathered recruits would make terrible spies.

“If I wanted to send a spy to Sudan I’d send one less interested in dead camels and goats. That tends to distract them,” he said. “We have more operatives in Sudan right now and one piece of intelligence we’ve gathered is that there seems to be a concentration of slaughterhouses not far from Port Sudan.”

Nor can Israeli vultures boast an illustrious history when it comes to making it through the airspace of hostile nations undetected. Saudi Arabia detained one of PP0277’s fellow vultures last year. Despite similar tags labelling it as a specimen tracked in a similar fashion by the same university, it prompted fears of an airborne “Zionist plot” against the kingdom.

Mr Hatzofe cautioned against Mossad getting any genuine spying ideas from the accusations, however. “I’d condemn anyone who tried using wild animals for military or espionage purposes. These creatures are already becoming rare and that would only put them in greater danger,” he said.

Animals at war

Sudan’s Vulturegate may sound like a laugh, but the use of living creatures for military purposes is by no means far-fetched: for half a century, for example, the US Navy has had a marine mammals programme which trains dolphins and sea lions for wartime tasks.

Although a 1973 Mike Nichols movie called The Day of The Dolphin would have us believe that the animals are being trained for aggressive missions such as killing enemy frogmen and laying mines or even nuclear weapons, the US Navy insists they are being trained merely for defensive purposes such as mine-detection, sentry duty and the recovery of objects lost on the seabed. Yet the California-based programme has been surprisingly extensive and has involved the use of at least ten species of whales and dolphins – and also investigated, yes, the potential role of birds.

Matthew Kalman
Saturday, 8 December 2012
Michael McCarthy

Find this story at 8 December 2012

© independent.co.uk

UK spent millions training security forces from oppressive regimes

Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo received £2.4m in training and support for military and defence staff

Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir, who has been indicted for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity by the international criminal court. Photograph: Ibrahim Usta/AP

The UK government has spent millions of pounds on training military, police and security personnel from oppressive regimes that have arms embargoes in place, the Guardian has learned.

In the last five years, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo have received from the UK government £2.4m between them in training and support for military and defence personnel.

Sudan is the only country in the world where the sitting president, Omar al-Bashir, has been indicted for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity by the international criminal court, while in Congo extensive human rights abuses, including extra-judicial killings and torture, have been documented.

The Enough Project, which works with the American actor George Clooney to expose human rights abuses in both Sudan and Congo, says the two countries are the scene of some of the world’s most serious mass atrocities.

In information revealed in a freedom of information response from the Ministry of Defence a total of £75,406 has been spent on providing 44-week courses at the elite Royal Military Academy Sandhurst for Sudanese and Congolese forces. Other support includes military logistics, advanced command and staff courses, strategic intelligence and evaluating challenges to state sovereignty.

A total of £952,301 was spent on international peace support, which includes border security and stabilisation.

Much of the current focus of concern about human rights abuses in Sudan centres on conflict in the border areas with the newly formed country of South Sudan, such as Blue Nile, Nuba Mountains and South Kordofan, and the ongoing conflict in Darfur, where documented genocide shows 300,000 Darfuris have been killed and up to 4 million displaced. The Sudanese government has refused humanitarian aid access to the border areas.

In Congo many and varied human rights abuses have been documented, especially against opponents of the president, Joseph Kabila. A UN report earlier this year highlighted “serious human rights violations, including killings, disappearances and arbitrary detentions” during last November’s presidential elections. At least 33 people were killed by government forces during the elections, and hundreds were arrested and said they had been tortured. A delegation of UK officials has been investigating claims of torture in Congo and is due to report back shortly.

A leading Sudanese exile based in the UK, Dr Gebreil Fediel from Darfur, is challenging the legality of the UK government’s relationship with Sudan in the high court next month.

His legal team is bringing enforcement proceedings against the government for failing to provide him with protection under the refugee convention and travel documents to enable him to attend peace talks around the world. These talks aim to bring an end to the appalling human rights situation in Sudan. He is the leader of a major Sudanese opposition movement, the Justice and Equality Movement.

The high court judge Mr Justice Wyn Williams described the government’s approach to Fediel as “unreasonably restrictive” in January of this year.

In a statement to the court Fediel accused the government of failing to provide him with protection because there was a deal between the two governments.

“I believe the government of Sudan is requesting the UK government to treat me like this for political reasons. Their decisions to exclude and restrict me are underpinned by political and intelligence considerations.”

He expressed concern about the military support and training provided by the UK: “If it was and is the intention of the UK authorities to teach Sudan’s police and security officers how to conduct these matters in a democratic manner, it has failed. The brutality and genocidal activities of government of Sudan state organs against its own citizens is widely documented.”

In July the Foreign Office minister Lord Howell admitted about Sudan: “There is ample evidence that the military tactics being used raise concerns that the most serious crimes of concern to the international community may be being committed.”

Fediel said that as well as the UK’s provision of military support to his government the UK had also been providing support and training to Sudanese police and security officials. He said that in May a group of senior police officers came to the UK for training.

A letter from the former Foreign Office minister Ivan Lewis in 2010 stated: “The UK has a large police support programme in Democratic Republic of the Congo.”

Aaron Hall, the associate director of research for the Enough Project, said: “We would hope that any nation providing military and security support to these countries would have conditions attached to that support based on the adherence to international human rights laws and standards. If credible evidence exists that shows violation of those laws and standards whether within those countries borders or externally, we would urge those governments providing support to immediately suspend that support, and further to work with international and regional partners to hold those responsible for human rights abuses accountable for their actions.”

Jovanka Savic, Fediel’s solicitor, said: “There is an obligation under international law that requires states to bring to an end breaches of international law through legal means. This new evidence suggests that the UK is not helping to do this but is instead giving aid and assistance to the Sudanese government in a way that could be in breach of its international legal obligations. It is very concerning that support is being offered to DRC where many human rights abuses have been documented.”

She said the UK’s actions against Fediel, in preventing or restricting him from attending peace talks around the world, was helping to prolong the human suffering and conflict in Sudan.

“They are making this man’s life very difficult for political and arguably illegal reasons,” she said.

The government provided a response from four departments – the Home Office, the Ministry of Defence, the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development.

A spokesman said: “Strict criteria are applied to any training to ensure that it complies with overseas security and assistance human rights guidance. For each funding decision an assessment of the risk of human rights abuses is carried out. Her Majesty’s government conducts continual assessment of its programmes and human rights compliance is a cardinal criterion of this.

“UK officials have contact with international criminal court indictees only when this is considered essential and on a case-by-case basis. No contact with President Bashir has come about as a result of these programmes.”

However, the spokesman confirmed that some meetings had taken place between the previous and present ambassador to Sudan and Bashir. “The main occasions are when a British ambassador leaves or takes up their post in Khartoum.”

The spokesman said that international peace support was delivered to UN peacekeeping missions in Sudan and South Sudan and funding was provided for the African Union panel leading the talks aimed at ending the conflict.

He confirmed that nine senior national police officers from Sudan visited London in May to learn about policing and human rights in the UK, two of whom held the rank of major general. “The officers met the Sudanese ambassador at his London office as a protocol courtesy.” He said that community policing initiatives had been set up following the officers’ return to Sudan.
The reaction from Africa

Studies have shown that Congolese soldiers are responsible for at least 60% of reported rapes in the country. Last year the UN implicated them in the rape of at least 121 women over three days in the village of Nyakiele, in South Kivu province. This came after the gang-rape of at least 47 women by government troops in North Kivu.

The UN’s high commissioner for human rights has said: “The Congolese army remains responsible for a significant number of human rights violations, including sexual violence.”

The opposition Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) was at the sharp end of last year’s election crackdown and claims soldiers were used to intimidate voters and interfere with ballot papers. It expressed concern at the use of British resources to train and support the military.

Albert Moleka, the party’s cabinet director and spokesman, said: “Training is a normal part of the co-operation of our two countries but we might say it is the responsibility of the DRC to use those who have been trained properly. That can only be done by a legitimate political authority. Unfortunately we don’t have a legitimate political authority. There is a huge gap of mistrust between the army and the population.”

He added: “In our experience it is the elite troops with the best equipment who are used against the population. I think military co-operation should be attached with strict conditions that ensure force is never used against the people. That is difficult for outside countries to monitor.”

Moleka said there was a long tradition of Congo’s military elite studying at academies in Britain and other foreign countries. “But when they come back, what functions do they occupy? How can they help their country? They’re not given the opportunity to bring what they learn to change the attitudes and behaviour of the army.”

The Congolese army, badly paid and fed, is still struggling to maintain discipline after the integration of a Tutsi rebel militia following a 2009 peace treaty. Yet the international community, including the world’s biggest UN peacekeeping operation, has put faith in it to quell violence in the country’s war-torn east.

In May, Human Rights Watch reported that Sudanese government forces were carrying out indiscriminate bombings and abuses against civilians in southern Kordofan. It called on Sudan to investigate the discovery of a cluster bomb in the region. Witnesses interviewed in Blue Nile also described serious abuses by the armed forces. The onslaughts have created tens of thousands of refugees living in appalling conditions.

Diane Taylor, and David Smith in Johannesburg
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 25 September 2012 11.33 BST

Find this story at 25 September 2012
© 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved.