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The Italian State Secret That Could Aid The Kurds

Thanks to a hidden supply of weapons seized from a Russian arms trafficker 20 years ago, Italy may be able to quickly help Kurdish fighters as they battle against the ISIS jihadist terrorists.

Peshmerga Special Forces in Zakho, Iraq
Peshmerga Special Forces in Zakho, Iraq
Francesco Grignetti

ROMESo far, it has mostly been the United States supporting Kurdish efforts against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. In northern Iraq, U.S. aircraft have delivered 15,000 weapons to Kurdish fighters over the past four weeks.

But the Italian Parliament has just approved a plan to send weapons to Kurdish militants to help them in their fight against ISIS jihadists. The first Italian aircraft could participate in an airlift to Erbil, the capital of the Iraqi Kurdistan autonomous region, this week.

Massoud Barzani, president of the Iraqi Kurdistan region, has explicitly requested "modern weaponry" and "air cover" from the West — even to the papal envoy last week. Kurdish fighters — called the Peshmerga — particularly want small arms, shoulder rockets and plenty of ammunition, as they are hastily equipping volunteers rushing against the ISIS advance.

Yet there may be some technical issues along the way. "The Kurdish Peshmerga have always used Soviet-manufactured weapons," says Gianandrea Gaiani, a military expert. The problem is that NATO weaponry standards are much different than those of the former Soviet bloc. Even the ammunition is incompatible. Italy can much more easily give helmets, flak jackets, bomb protection, night vision goggles, and laser targeting systems.

Thousands of hidden weapons

But if Kurds really need Kalashnikovs, perhaps Italy is in the perfect position to help.

Twenty years ago, Italy participated in a seizure operation at sea during the Balkan war. The "Jadran Express," a transport ship coming from Ukraine and traveling towards Split, in Croatia, was intercepted and taken to the southern Italian port of Taranto.

It turns out that the freighter was transporting a massive arsenal: crates with 30,000 AK-47s, 400 9K111 Fagot missiles with associated ramp launches, 5,000 Katyusha rockets, 11,000 anti-tank rockets, and 32 million munitions.

Authorities arrested Russian oligarch Alexander Zukhov, a billionaire with a Sardinian villa, for the haul. His grandfather was the legendary Marshal Georgy Zukhov of the Red Army.

After 10 years on trial, Zukhov and other defendants were acquitted. The defense argued that the weaponry load had never entered Italian territorial waters. The Supreme Court eventually acknowledged that Italy had no criminal jurisdiction to penalize arms trafficking outside its borders.

A state secret

These 2,000 tons of weapons were confiscated and, despite a judicial destruction order, the load remained stored underground ontheIsola della Maddalena, in northern Sardinia.

The huge weapons supply was taken off the island in the spring of 2011, just as the war in Libya began. Some of the weapons were probably sold for cash to the Benghazi rebels, disguised by various loads.

Rumors spread that some of the weapons were in containers aboard civilian ferries. Two parliament members, Gianpiero Scanu and Giulio Calvisi, raised the issue in front of the Italian Parliament. Their questions were dropped by the government, then headed by Silvio Berlusconi. When Sardinia's judiciary found out, the investigation fell through. It was a state secret.

What's left of the arsenal is now stored somewhere by the Italian Armed Forces. These thousands of rifles, rockets, missiles and ammunition, kept in complete secrecy since 1994, might finally find their perfect use with the Kurds.

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