A Florida air-transport company, formerly owned by the Central Intelligence Agency, has flown hundreds of military-supply flights for the Angolan government in the last three years, according to Department of Transportation (DOT) logs and diplomatic sources. The flights have been in support of Angolan forces fighting the antigovernment rebels of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA).
Ironically, the CIA is currently providing arms and supplies to the UNITA insurgents under a $15 million United States covert aid program.
A spokesman for the Miami-based Southern Air Transport Inc. (SAT) denies that its Lockheed L-100 Hercules aircraft have ferried troops and weaponry for the Angolan military in connection with its long-running civil war with the US- and South Africa-backed rebels.
But sources close to the Luanda government confirm that although SAT contracted its aircraft to a European firm that runs Angola's diamond mines, the planes are often used by the military to fly equipment and fuel to front-line bases.
``The [Angolan] Army and Air Force use them to fly around,'' says the source, who asks not to be identified. ``Some of the diamond people have complained that the military is using all their planes.''
Two of the crew members on the C-123 cargo plane shot down by the Nicaraguan military on Oct. 5 while on a supply mission to the US-backed contra guerrillas, these sources add, had served on SAT crews in Angola.
Wallace Blaine Sawyer Jr. and William Cooper were killed in the crash, while their colleague, cargo-handler Eugene Hasenfus, was sentenced Saturday to 30 years in a Nicaraguan prison.
Papers recovered from the aircraft by the Nicaraguan authorities show that Mr. Sawyer had flown several missions in Angola only weeks before he was killed in Nicaragua. One American businessman says Mr. Cooper knew the strife-torn southern African country so well that he could ``fly without a map.''
Reagan administration officials say they cannot confirm the use of SAT aircraft by Angola. But one adds, ``Some of this stuff, I have not gone out of my way to look into.'' The State Department official says there is a ``possibility'' that SAT is ferrying fuel and equipment for the military and that the activity would not be illegal under United States law.
``It had long struck me as strange that a lineal descendant of Air America would be flying for the Angolans,'' the official says. ``But what you have here is a company that fills various cracks in the modern world, making money by flying where others won't.''
Air America was a CIA-operated airline active during the Vietnam war. Its successor, SAT, was operated secretly by the US intelligence agency until 1973, when it was sold to private owners.
But SAT still does much of its contracting for the US Defense Department and other government agencies. Many of its employees are former CIA fliers.
Despite this, the source close to the Angolan government says Luanda is comfortable that SAT's fliers are not passing along vital information on military supply routes to its UNITA enemies.
But according to SAT senior vice-president Charles Carson, the company's activities in Angola have nothing to do with the war. ``We don't work for the Angolan government,'' he says. ``We work for a European company that has the diamond mining concession. Under no circumstances would we haul military equipment. That would be folly or madness.''
According to DOT civil aircraft charter logs, however, SAT is hauling massive tonnage in frequent flights around Angola, many of which do not appear connected to the diamond mining operations in the northeast of the country. The logs show more than 100 flights in the month of June 1985 alone carrying some 3,800 tons of cargo between Angolan capital of Luanda and the port city of Benguela.
Other destinations include the port of Namibe; the village of Chitado in southwestern Angola; and Cuito Cuanavale, a provincial capital in the southeast.
The flight logs also show flights in September 1985 between Dulles Airport outside Washington, D.C., and Luanda; and last June, between Dobbins Air Force Base in Georgia and the Angolan capital.
SAT's Mr. Carson says all of the flights were related to the diamond mining contracts, and some ferrying food aid. In the case of flights to towns such as Namibe, almost diagonally across the enormous nation from the diamond mines at Cafunfo, Carter says SAT was picking up dried fish and fuel. He also admits that SAT often carried fuel to outlying airports for Angola's national airline, TAAG.
Since the Reagan administration began its covert aid program for UNITA last year, it has forbidden the sale of heavy cargo aircraft, such as the L-100, to Luanda. Thus, an official says, it is likely the Angolans are relying, in part, on SAT planes for the heaviest work in the war effort, such as shipping oil and jet fuel. He says that while there was no formal contract between SAT and the government, there was an ``understanding'' that the L-100s would be available for charter.
State Department sources also confirm that when SAT has problems with its aircraft it flies them to South Africa for servicing. The white-minority government of P.W. Botha is UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi's main backer. South Africa and Angola have been in a state of war since the latter's independence in 1975.
On Oct. 28, SAT's lawyers in Washington applied for an exemption from a US government move to prevent US aircraft from landing in South Africa. SAT said in its DOT application that it operated various charter and contract services throughout Africa using a fleet of the specialized L-100s.
``The only qualified facility on the African continent for the maintenance of Lockheed L-100 Hercules equipment is ... located in the Republic of South Africa,'' it said. -- 30 --
The nearest other facility that could perform maintenance on the aircraft is in Cambridge, England.