Madagascar indefinitely extends flight embargo on Airlink over SA’s gold bullion intercept
The government of Madagascar has just indefinitely extended a six-month ban on the South African airline Airlink from flying into the country – because Pretoria won’t return 73.5kg of smuggled gold bullion.
The prospects for Airlink being able to resume flights to Madagascar – what was among its five most profitable routes – now seems remote as the court case over the allegedly smuggled gold shows no signs of being finalised soon.
South Africa’s ambassador to Madagascar, Sisa Ngombane, confirmed to Daily Maverick on Monday that Madagascar’s civil aviation authorities had, on Saturday 15 October, renewed the ban – first imposed in April – on South African aircraft flying the South Africa-Madagascar route.
Airlink CEO Rodger Foster said last week that Airlink’s agents in Madagascar had been told by the country’s civil aviation authorities that the ban would remain in place until South Africa returned the 73,5kg of gold and the Malagasy couriers who had brought it into South Africa.
The effective ban on Airlink takes the form of NOTAMs – Notices to Air Missions. The first one was issued by Madagascar’s civil aviation authority in April and announced that it was lifting the restrictions on international flights which had been in force for two years because of the pandemic.
The NOTAM lifted the ban by name on all countries which had flown the Madagascar route before the Covid ban – except South Africa. Airlink was not mentioned by name, but it was the only South African airline flying the route and so was effectively banned.
Pretoria suspected then that the cause of the ban was the seizure of 73,5kg of unwrought gold and $20,000 in cash from three couriers who flew into Fireblade Aviation – a private terminal alongside Johannesburg’s OR Tambo International Airport – on a charter flight from Madagascar on 31 December 2020.
South African authorities arrested the three couriers and confiscated the gold because they believed the couriers were attempting to smuggle the precious metal into the country.
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A company called Parpia Gold and Jewels Trading LLC has been trying to get the South African courts to release the three men and return the gold, which it claims it bought legally in Mali.
The Madagascar government has meanwhile been seeking the extradition of the three men and the return of the gold, which it claims was stolen from Madagascar and rightfully belongs to the government.
The men were en route to Dubai, which has become a major centre for dealing in illicit gold, while South Africa has become one of the biggest transit points for getting the gold there.
South African authorities have decided to hold onto the men, the gold and the dollars until the courts have established the truth of the various claims.
In July it was officially confirmed that South Africa’s refusal to hand over the couriers and the gold was the reason for the ban on Airlink. In a statement, Madagascar’s ruling Council of Ministers announced that Malagasy President Andry Rajoelina had “insisted that all measures to combat the smuggling of national resources must be strengthened.
“That is why, the air routes connecting Madagascar to South Africa has not been opened yet; as it is still awaiting the signing of an agreement or ‘Memorandum of Understanding’ to ensure the prevention of the smuggling of national wealth.”
The president also reaffirmed Madagascar’s demand for the return of 73kg of gold illegally exported to South Africa and the repatriation to Madagascar of the Malagasy nationals responsible for the crime, through extradition.
“The current government is looking for all possible ways, both legal and diplomatic, to achieve this goal because it is difficult to protect the Malagasy national wealth.”
Foster told Daily Maverick that Airlink had complained to South Africa’s civil aviation authorities about the ban, but had so far received no reply.
He stressed that Airlink was a completely innocent victim of a quarrel between the South African and Malagasy governments, as Airlink had had nothing to do with the gold smuggling.
He said it was a mystery why this gold smuggling incident had attracted the interest and personal attention of the Malagasy president.
Foster said he had not calculated the amount of money Airlink had so far lost because of being barred from the Madagascar route.
“But it used to be one of our top five performing destinations in terms of profitability.” DM