Rus­sian air­craft might be whisk­ing gold out of Cara­cas

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - News - BY TIM JOHNSON tjohn­[email protected]­clatchydc.com Kevin G. Hall con­trib­uted to this re­port. Tim Johnson: 202 383-6028, @timjohn­son4

A Rus­sian-owned freight air­liner took off from Venezuela on Fri­day af­ter­noon, the lat­est of two mys­tery flights last week that have raised ques­tions about Rus­sia’s role in the un­fold­ing cri­sis.

A Boe­ing 757 reg­is­tered to a newly es­tab­lished Moscow air freight com­pany, spelled in­ter­mit­tently as Ero­fey, Yero­fei and Ero­fei, left an air­port near Cara­cas in the early af­ter­noon and headed on a trans-At­lantic route.

Two com­mer­cial flight track­ing ser­vices, Radar­box24 and fligh­tradar24, showed the flight ap­prox­i­mat­ing the jour­ney it took three days ear­lier when it left Moscow, flew to Dubai, on to Casablanca in Morocco and the Cape Verde Is­lands in the At­lantic be­fore ar­riv­ing at Si­mon Bo­li­var In­ter­na­tional Air­port near Cara­cas.

What was aboard the air­craft was un­known, but a Rus­sian me­dia out­let, No­vaya Gazeta, re­ported Thurs­day that Rus­sia may be help­ing em­bat­tled Venezue­lan leader Ni­colás Maduro re­move 20 tons of gold out of his coun­try for fear he may not hang onto power.

An­other pas­sen­ger jet, char­tered from the Rus­sian com­pany Nord­wind, landed at the­main air­port near Cara­cas onMon­day evening and re­turned to Moscow two days later.

The­mys­tery flights draw at­ten­tion to the broader is­sue of how Rus­sia has be­come a pa­tron to Maduro, partly to poke a stick at the United States but also to pro­tect about $17 bil­lion in in­vest­ments and credits the Rus­sian state and Rus­sian com­pa­nies have made to Venezuela’s shat­tered oil sec­tor.

Some an­a­lysts saw in the flights echoes of what has tran­spired in the fi­nal days of other au­thor­i­tar­ian rulers around the globe.

“His­tor­i­cally, what dic­ta­tors do when they be­lieve they are about to lose power, or worry about it, they ba­si­cally take ev­ery­thing they can carry and they spirit it out of the coun­try to some safe place,” said R. Evan El­lis, a Latin Amer­ica ex­pert at the U.S. Army War Col­lege Strate­gic Stud­ies In­sti­tute. El­lis said he didn’t know what was aboard the two air­craft but that the flights are an in­di­ca­tion that Rus­sia may be as­sist­ing Maduro’s gov­ern­ment in mov­ing as­sets.

“The pre­sump­tion is that it is gold. I don’t know what else you would want to move,” El­lis said.

Ero­fey, the Moscow air freight com­pany, which also does busi­ness as E-Cargo, be­gan op­er­a­tions last July out of Moscow’s Do­mode­dovo Air­port. Rus­sian avi­a­tion pub­li­ca­tions said its chief ex­ec­u­tive had run air­craft man­u­fac­tur­ing op­er­a­tions in Rus­sia, and that the Boe­ing 757 was once op­er­ated by United Air­lines and later con­verted to cargo use.

Rus­sia struck up warm re­la­tions with Venezuela un­der Maduro’s pre­de­ces­sor, Hugo Chávez, a charis­matic pop­ulist who gov­erned from 1999 un­til his death in 2013, when Maduro took the helm.

“Chávez was end­lessly trav­el­ing to Rus­sia,” said Maxim Tru­dolyubov, ed­i­tor of the Rus­sia File blog at the Wil­son Cen­ter’s Ken­nan In­sti­tute, a think tank in Wash­ing­ton.

Amid the sharp un­rav­el­ing of Venezuela’s econ­omy, Maduro be­gan his sec­ond term as pres­i­dent on Jan. 10. But the United States and about 20 other coun­tries de­nied him recog­ni­tion, say­ing his re-elec­tion was not free and fair, and threw sup­port be­hind Na­tional As­sem­bly Pres­i­dent Juan Guaidó as in­terim pres­i­dent.

MAXIM SHEMETOV AP

Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin, right, and his Venezue­lan coun­ter­part Ni­colás Maduro meet Dec. 8 out­side Moscow. Rus­sia may be help­ing Maduro re­move 20 tons of gold out of his coun­try.

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