Thursday, December 24, 2009

Theft of jet engines puts the spotlight on Malaysia

Charges of serious security breaches and cover-up of scandal

KUALA LUMPUR: A widening scandal over the theft of two jet engines by senior military personnel has exposed serious lapses in Malaysia's security establishment. It has also raised concerns that the country is emerging as a hub for the trade of illicit military-related equipment to countries declared as rogue nations by the United States and its allies.

Over the past week, Prime Minister Najib Razak and his Cabinet colleagues have scrambled to defend embarrassing revelations that two F5-E jet engines from the Royal Malaysian Air Force and other sensitive military equipment were smuggled out of a high-security airbase and moved by a cargo plane out of the country. The theft of the two engines - each worth RM50 million (S$20.5 million) - was discovered last year but became public only after it was exposed by a local newspaper.

Government officials have declined to identify the cargo's destination, but Western diplomats closely tracking the situation said that the engines were destined for Iran, which has been under a US trade embargo since 1995 and is now under global scrutiny because of its refusal to suspend its nuclear enrichment programme.

Malaysia's international reputation took a serious dent in late 2003 when a large, politically well-connected company was discovered to be a crucial player in the now-defunct clandestine network headed by rogue Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan, which sold nuclear know-how and technology to Libya, Iran and Pakistan.

The Khan-led network was exposed when centrifuge components produced by a subsidiary of the Scomi Group - a large engineering concern controlled by Mr Kamaluddin Abdullah, the son of former premier Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, and prominent businessman Shah Hakim alias Shahzanim Zain - were intercepted by European intelligence officials in a ship bound for Libya.

More recently, several executives from Malaysia-incorporated companies, including firms owned by foreigners, were indicted in the US for illegally selling military equipment to Iran. These cases have triggered concerns among defence analysts and diplomats that Malaysia could become a hub for the illicit trading of military equipment and technology.

The latest fiasco is particularly disturbing as it directly involves senior air force officers who have yet to be identified by the Malaysian authorities.

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