Strange and unscheduled military planes from the US have in the last two months been making secretive night landings in Kenya, in what are feared as missions to move terror suspects from the country.
The night landings of US planes at Nairobi’s Wilson Airport, carrying American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officials have raised suspicion and controversy not only among local security agents, but also players in aviation.
The Prescott Support Group, which has been accused in other parts of the world of being involved in renditioning terror suspects, was allowed to operate in Kenya two months ago.
Documents in our possession show that the company was allowed to fly in and out in a Gazette notice dated June 20 for two years.
Prescott Support Group, which according to the American media, has links with the CIA, applied for renewal of their licence in May, even after the Kenya Association of Air Operators (KAAO) questioned their licence and mission.
Despite the concerns, the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority (KCAA) went ahead and granted the two-year licence although ordinarily they should have sought clearance from the Department of Defence (DOD) because of their military aircraft.
According to the Gazette notice, Prescott Group was given the secret landing licence through the US Embassy in Nairobi, whose officials we could not get a comment from on Sunday.
KCAA Director-General Chris Kuto on Sunday confirmed the operations of the planes, saying they were involved in “Turkana for mapping purposes”.
Kuto said the planes carry only American soldiers and their equipment and not passengers, contrary to information from sources at Wilson Airport who had indicated that some passengers did not look like US military officers who are normally in uniform.
Kuto added that the company applied to for aerial mapping operations in Turkana.
“We gave them the licence based on that information. We did not see anything wrong or any reason to deny them the licence,” he said.
The presence of the planes comes at a time when security personnel have launched a search for wanted terror suspect Fazul Abdullah Mohamed.
With growing fears of terrorism in the region, there was speculation that the CIA could be behind night flights to arrest and rendition suspects from Kenya.
On Thursday, Kenya marked the 10th anniversary since the terrorist attack on the US embassy in Nairobi on August 7, 1998. The terrorism remained real after the mastermind, Fazul, sneaked into the country but beat a police dragnet for the fourth time.
Since Fazul was seen in Malindi two weeks ago, local and international security agents have been on high alert and arrested several suspects who had interacted with him.
Fazul’s August 7, 1998 explosive arsenal in Nairobi left more than 200 people dead and another 5,000 others seriously injured.
Anti-terrorist police arrested a suspect on Sunday believed to be a close associate of Fazul, even as suspicion emerged in the police force that some security officers could be on the payroll of the international terrorist.
The Prescott Group was allowed to make non-scheduled air service for passengers and freight in and out of Kenya.
The group was also allowed to operate from Africa and beyond using aircraft CN235, l382, BE200 based in the US, Wilson Airport and Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.
The operators had applied for the services early this year. It was not clear the kind of passengers and cargo they would carry even though officials said it was only military.
Non-scheduled flights mean they can fly into the country and take off from remote, unimproved locations not served by traditional air carriers within their area of operations.
The Standard established that a Bich 200 aircraft, belonging to the US, was undergoing maintenance and TCAS installation at the Wilson Airport.
“The crew of the aircraft, both Americans, had said they would be around for 10 days, but they are still around. I don’t know where they came from and what their mission is all about,” an engineer at the hangar, who sought anonymity, said.
Extraordinary rendition refers to the controversial American procedure in which suspects are apprehended, sometimes secretly, and sent for interrogation in countries where torture is used as a routine form of interrogation.
Leaked CIA reports cite suspects being arrested, shackled, blindfolded and sedated, after which they are transported, usually by private jet, to other countries.
Although the practice has been in use since the 1990s, its scope has widened immensely since the September 11, 2001 attacks in US.
In Kenya, US flights operate using Air Operating certificate (AOC) belonging to East African company based at Wilson Airport.
In their licence application last year, they wanted a domestic and international operation licence through the US Embassy, but were denied the domestic one.
According to licensing rules, international airlines cannot be granted a domestic licence in a foreign country.
But after failing to get the domestic licence, officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs were said to have intervened and asked for the airline’s exemption to operate domestic flights.
Police Spokesman Eric Kiraithe said he was not aware of the planes’ operations. He said the planes were licensed by KCAA to carry out freight services.
“That is a civil aviation issue and does not concern the police. They were licensed by KCAA so we do not come in,” he said.
We could not reach the US embassy and military spokesman for comment. Their mobile phones were switched off.
During the May 12 licensing meeting, local air operators demanded to know the type of operations the Prescott Group would engage in and why they applied for a civilian licence while they were supposed to apply to the military given their operations were military, not civilian.
But a representative of the Prescott Group, Captain (Rtd) Jorim Kagua, told the meeting that they were not in a position to divulge information about the airline’s operations.
However, he said they would perform military operations.
A KCAA official told The Standard yesterday that an agreement was signed between Kenya and the US government to perform undisclosed military operations.
Besides the agreement, Kenya and the US recently signed a bilateral agreement for direct commercial flights.
Kenya has previously handed over more than 15 terror suspects to the US and Ethiopian authorities in an exercise that angered many Muslim leaders.