Australia has intervened in a pending dispute between a UK military consultancy and the Papua New Guinea (PNG) Government over ownership of an arms shipment, including four Russian military helicopters, now on Australian soil.

Australian prime minister John Howard says that the diversion of the Antonov An-124, which was being used to ferry the arms, had been arranged "in consultation with the PNG and other regional governments". This followed a request by PNG's recently appointed acting prime minister and his refusal to allow the aircraft to land in PNG.

The shipment had previously been impounded for about a week by Thai authorities over discrepancies in the aircraft's manifest and the identities of crewmembers.

The An-124, due originally to be flown from Bangkok to Port Moresby, was diverted to the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) base at Tindal, Northern Territory, and its cargo unloaded and impounded on 27 March. Several RAAF McDonnell Douglas F-18s reportedly escorted the aircraft as it approached Tindal.

The freighter, which was carrying two Russian-built Mil Mi-24 Hind assault helicopters, two Mil Mi-17 troop carriers, six rocket pods for the helicopters, 1,000 67mm high-explosive rockets, and other armament and vehicles, departed after unloading.

The helicopters were part of a A$46 million ($36 million) package purchased from UK-based consultancy Sandline International by the PNG Government before the country's prime minister, Sir Julius Chan, was forced to step down.

The package also included the services of about 50 South African mercenaries, to be used in the suppression of secessionist forces in Bougainville, PNG.

The mercenaries, and Sandline executive Tim Spicer, were deported before Chan stood down, along with deputy prime minister and finance minister Chris Haiveta and the defence minister. This followed a confrontation between Chan and military leader Brig Gen Jerry Singaroff, who demanded a judicial inquiry into alleged corruption in the deal with Sandline. The helicopters and other arms are understood to have been bought on behalf of the PNG Government by Sandline.

The caretaker Government invited Australia's intervention, to avoid the equipment falling into the hands of military elements still not yielding to government authority. It is believed that the helicopters were to be flown by pilots supplied by Executive Outcomes, a South African group associated with Sandline.

Source: Flight International