Frontline World

Sierra Leone - Gunrunners


Synopsis of "Gunrunners"

Web-exclusive report on key players in the small arms trade

Source of Black Market Weapons

U.N. Investigator

State Department Analyst

Gunrunning, Cold War Stockpiles, and Conflict Diamonds



The StoryGunrunners in Sierra Leone
Watch VideoFew places in the world have seen such brutal carnage in recent years as Sierra Leone, where tens of thousands of civilians have been killed and mutilated in a decade-long civil war. The madness in Sierra Leone reached ghastly proportions in January 1999, during a three-week rebel siege of the capital city, Freetown. More than 4,000 people were slaughtered as rebel forces took control of the city. Women were randomly raped and thousands of children were conscripted.

Responding to the violence in Sierra Leone, the U.N. sent the largest peacekeeping force in the world to enforce peace. The U.N. also sent "expert panels" of investigators to report on how illegal weapons were continuing to flow into the region in spite of U.N. sanctions and arms embargoes. Although they don't carry badges or issue subpoenas, these U.N. "detectives" use their investigative skills to "name and shame" the violators.

U.N. arms expert Johan Peleman, a chain-smoking Belgian, was trying to turn up leads in Sierra Leone when he got a lucky break. Peleman learned of a cocaine bust in Milan, where Italian police discovered four prostitutes in a hotel room with a Ukrainian businessman named Leonid Minin. The police also discovered more than $35,000 in cash, a half-million dollars in diamonds, and more than 1,500 documents detailing a tangled web of business dealings in oil, diamonds, timber and gun shipments to Africa.

Among the documents were flight records of a plane that had once belonged to the Seattle Supersonics basketball team, and now belonged to Leonid Minin. The flight records helped Peleman crack the case of an illegal arms deal in 1999 that delivered missiles, grenade launchers and thousands of AK-47 assault rifles to Liberia. These same weapons ultimately made their way into the hands of the rebels in neighboring Sierra Leone.

It so happened that the U.S. State Department had spotted the same illegal arms shipment from the Ukraine, but decided to take no action beyond filing a demarche -- a written reprimand -- to the Ukrainian government. Washington, sources say, was more concerned with "loose nukes" in Ukraine and Russia than the export of small weapons to Africa.

Ukraine was once a vital part of the Soviet military machine, and it is now ranked 8th in the world for weapons sales to other countries. A Ukrainian arms export official tells FRONTLINE/World he has no knowledge of Ukrainian weapons being diverted to embargoed nations, "So how could we bear any responsibility for this?" But sources say that Minin told Italian investigators that Vadim Rabinovitch, one of Ukraine's wealthiest businessmen, was connected to the 1999 arms shipment to Liberia -- a charge Rabinovitch denies.

The U.N. Security Council has extended the arms embargo on Liberia, but has not acted to crackdown on Ukraine. Meanwhile, Leonid Minin sits in an Italian jail on charges of violating a U.N. arms embargo. Minin's prosecution -- the first of its kind -- is considered an international test case.

But State Department arms expert Tom Ofcansky warns that shutting down Minin won't eliminate the problem of global gun smuggling. "It's a systemic problem. The international climate ... allows this activity to go on. That has to change."

"Gunrunners" Credits

Producer/Correspondent: Rick Young
Rick Young is an independent producer who has worked on more than a dozen FRONTLINE documentaries. He is based in Washington, D.C.

Co-Producer/Reporter: William Kistner
William Kistner is a producer and reporter based in Washington D.C., and he is an associate of the Center for Investigative Reporting.

Field Producers
Kim Woodard
Matthew Brunwasser

Cliff Hackel
Steve Audette

Peter Pearce

Additional Research
Sabina Ghebremedhin

A co-production with the Center for Investigative Reporting, Inc.

The nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting conducts media investigations of underreported issues in the public interest. CIR's most recent television investigation with KQED San Francisco, "GunShots," just received the Sigma Delta Chi Award for documentaries.

Additional funding for this story provided by
The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
Ploughshares Fund
United States Institute of Peace
Compton Foundation