Balkan Strategic Studies

October 31, 1992

Croatia Acts as the Nexus of a New Arms Trade

US Congressional sources have identified a widespread trade in arms and nuclear technology centered around the State of Croatia. Much of it has to do with the illegal acquisition of weapons, largely through Germany and Austria, for Croatia's own use in the war in the Balkans. But it also involves the trafficking of nuclear technology and radioactive materials through Croatia. US Congressional sources told Defense & Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy that a German woman, Rita Draxler, then operating out of Vienna, was one of the primary weapons suppliers to Croatia and Slovenia, smuggling the weapons in from Germany and Eastern Europe. Among the major deals she brokered, according to the sources, was a US$60-million deal, signed on September 27, 1991, for US-build General Dynamics Stinger man-portable surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), and Euromissile (Franco-German) man-portable Milan anti-tank guided weapons. The weapons were allegedly shipped from Germany to Croatia, and payment was arranged through a Liechtenstein-based bank. The sources also said that Rita Draxler was also involved in smuggling radioactive materials.

In a separate deal, apparently involving Draxler, the major German defense firm, MBB, sold Armbrust anti-tank rockets to both Croatia and Serbia, using a Singapore end-user certificate. "For larger items from Eastern Europe, such as tanks, aircraft, etc., Draxler uses certificates identifying the items as historical pieces on their way to military museums," a Congressional report said. As well, in the early Autumn of 1991, Rita Draxler reportedly cooperated with a Croatian who identified himself as Marijan Sokolovic in a series of weapons deals with Poland, involving the shipment of 50 tons of weapons for Croatia. On that deal, the Zagreb Government could not come up with payment, but Draxler said that it would not be a problem if Sokolovic could arrange for Zagreb to instead provide assistance in the smuggling of uranium and plutonium as an alternative form of payment. As a result, Croatia has begun to emerge as a major component in the international nuclear smuggling network from Europe to the radical states of the Third World. Croatia's primary role, according to Congressional documents, is to provide safe storage and false documentation to facilitate the shipment of materials.

According to the terms of the first deal, Sokolovic was to provide logistical support for the transfer of nuclear material from Siberia to Iraq. On the Russian side, the network was allegedly organized by senior officers of the KGB, led by Vitali Tarchuk/Fedorchuk, and the GRU led by Oleg Petrovsky. These men had access to nuclear materials including, allegedly, tactical nuclear warheads. All the weapons were allegedly stolen from CIS Army depots in Siberia, primarily from the Irkutsk area. Although Iraq was the network's major initial customer, Libya was apparently soon to become a customer. Marijan Sokolovic was reportedly in charge of the underground trade in nuclear materials for these networks, and arranged secluded and safe storage and inspection facilities in Sebenico, Croatia. From there, the material for Iraq, including key components for the nuclear weapons program of Iraq, was driven by truck to Baghdad via Bulgaria. The shipments are reportedly continuing. Bulgarian truck drivers working for the Somat company in the Summer of 1992 were reportedly suffering from several rare diseases attributed to prolonged exposure to "dangerous toxic cargoes", primarily "chemical warfare agents" and "highly toxic radioactive substances" which they had been transporting to Iraq from Germany, Italy and Croatia since the Spring of 1991.

The volume of nuclear traffic became so large by November 1991 that the network was having problems meeting delivery schedules, a problem complicated by repeated security failures. Italian intelligence, in mid-October 1991, intercepted negotiations for the sale of nuclear materials and bomb-making tools in Como [A measurement tool with traces of bomb-grade plutonium was also captured in a police raid]. The Italians also learned that one of the network's bankers, Karl Friederich Federer, kept a stockpile of 30kg of uranium and 10kg of plutonium in a Zurich bank vault. The uranium was seized on November 11, 1991, in suitcases in the boot of the car of Friedrich Refner, the honorary consul of Honduras, also reportedly a KGB agent in Swizterland. But despite this setback Sokolovic was able to ship another large plutonium load to Sebenico. His name was discovered during the Como raids and he was arrested in November 1991 in Vienna on his way to Croatia. When caught, he was carrying 2.8kg of plutonium. He was released in February 1992. Meanwhile Rita Draxler continued to attempt to sell the plutonium, which, she said, "could be used for weapons", and red mercury, on Sokolovic's behalf. Italian intelligence sources discovered continued activity related to nuclear materials going through Sebenico. Routine and growing involvement by Croatian authorities to provide safe haven for the shipments and storage has meant that there are now fewer interceptions. Rita Draxler reportedly "escaped to Germany" before she could be arrested. As well, the Congressional reports cite the involvement of a Croatian-born Canadian, Anton Kikas, who, in 1991, arranged Croatia's elaborate system for the clandestine purchase and delivery of South African-made Armscor weapons, using aircraft leased by Uganda Airlines Corporation.