Flight attendant’s husband says promises of release come and go

By The Flying Pinto

More than a month after his wife and seven others were detained amid gold smuggling allegations in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Pat Shannon is fed up. All he gets, day after day, are vague answers and half-hearted assurances.

His wife, Kelly, did nothing wrong, he insists. Nobody says she did. But still the flight attendant is stuck in a hotel in the eastern Congo city of Goma along with three fellow aviation crew members who on Feb. 3 were stopped on the runway as their Gulfstream V jet was preparing for takeoff.

Authorities claimed they found more than 450 kilograms of gold on the plane, apparently purchased in violation of the country’s export ban on minerals from its eastern provinces.

The men on the plane who were involved in the transaction are being held in the same hotel while government officials investigate the deal. Three of the men are employees of CAMAC International, a Houston-based energy company owned by Kase Lawal. One is Lawal’s brother, Mickey.

But Kelly Shannon and the three pilots claim to have known little, if anything, about the purpose of the trip.

First trip to Africa

Pat Shannon said it was his wife’s first trip to Africa. Now she is spending her days watching television, reading what books she can find in English, eating meals with people who are bored with each other’s company and messaging friends and family members in Houston.

“They are holding up as well as can be expected given the indefinite outcome,” Pat Shannon said of his wife and crewmates. “Every day is a mystery, and that gets to be burdensome. She’s basically climbing the walls.”

On several occasions he has been told by those monitoring the investigation that the crew is close to being released. Then it fails to happen. At least twice, he said, the pilots have been taken to the airport to check on the plane and start its engines. Then they come back to the hotel and wait.

“They keep making these promises that they are going to release these people, so why can’t it happen?” Shannon said. “What is the hitch over there? I know they have to go through their processes and such, but it’s been a month. There is no end in sight.”

U.S. consular officials from the embassy in Kinshasa have visited the detained Americans to check on their welfare and tell them what they know of the Congolese investigation. But the ball is really in Congo’s court as it tries to sort through the incident, which also involved almost $7 million in cash brought in on the jet that was said to be in the custody, at least for awhile, of a notorious Congolese general.

U.S. denies role

Meanwhile, stories, rumors, gossip and a variety of conflicting reports continue to swirl around what the Congo government insists was a thwarted attempt to smuggle gold, though no one has been formally charged yet. Some Congolese officials have been quoted in news reports linking the gold that was seized from the Houston men to a large cache of gold — 2.5 metric tons – that purportedly was smuggled recently from Congo into Kenya.

The ill-fated deal was originally supposed to take place in Kenya, according to an attorney who claims to have represented one of the men detained in the deal, Carlos St. Mary. The lead Kenyan investigator into the matter was assassinated at his home this week.

A Congo government spokesman, Lambert Mende, has said the plane was flagged by the U.S. government apparently on suspicion of involvement in drug smuggling. South American drug smugglers in recent years have used private planes to transport drugs into western Africa, where they begin their trip northward into Europe. But the CAMAC jet’s recent flight history does not include any South American stops.

One official with a U.S. government agency said the U.S. played no role in the stopping or seizure of the aircraft.

St. Mary, a longtime friend of the Lawal family, claims to be an international diamond merchant specializing in rough diamonds, many of which come from conflict-ridden countries in Africa. His involvement in the gold deal is unclear, though a CAMAC spokesman has said he requested use of the jet.

The Kenyan attorney, Punit Vadgama, said St. Mary’s company, Axiom Trading, hired him to set up a corporate entity to facilitate the transaction and export the gold legally out of Kenya, and that he and his partners are the victims of an elaborate scam.

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