[This is is an edited version of the article that first appeared at Bellingcat, and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.]
Around January 30, 2017, news started circulating on both African and Eastern European media that an Mi-24 combat helicopter belonging to the FAC, the airforce component of the DRC’s armed forces, had crashed on January 27 in Rutshuru, North Kivu, near the borders with Rwanda and Uganda. It was said that the Mi-24 was hit by M23 fighters, which is known as being active in the area. Shortly after, reports came in that a second helicopter had also been downed by gunfire.
The peculiarity of the incident is in the helicopter crews of both Mi-24s. One crew reportedly consisted of two Georgian pilots, one of whom was either held prisoner by the M23 attackers or transferred to a linked group; while the other crew consisted of two Belarusian men. Both crews were reportedly in DRC on “private contracts”, but it remained unclear why they were piloting — or at least on board — FAC combat helicopters in an active conflict area.
Photos of one of the two crashed helicopters started circulating on the web by January 30. They show the remnants of what appears to be a Mi-24 combat helicopter displaying part of its registration number:
The Congolese newspaper Politico.cd published a few photos a day later on January 31. Interestingly, the date impressed by the device — likely to be a compact digital camera — on two of the pictures is in Cyrillic script, and reads “27 Jan 2017”. Additionally, we find that the complete registration number for the helicopter is: 9T-HM 12.
While it’s difficult to obtain absolute certainty that the helicopter in all pictures is the same one, because of the lack of points of reference in the forested area, several details seem to confirm it:
- A severed log is visible in two pictures right behind the helicopter’s cabin in three different shots, two of which from different angles;
- The damage inflicted to the vehicle’s tail appears to match in all photos where it’s visible;
- A second severed log is visible in at least two pictures while resting over the right wing of the helicopter;
- The cabin door to the rear troop-utility compartment is visible in at least two pictures as open;
- The pattern of damage to the helicopter’s blade also seems to match in all photos, with a short blade’s stump pointing loosely towards the back of the aircraft, and longer ones towards the other sides.
The registration number of the helicopter is, naturally, a crucial piece of information. A 2011 document purporting to reproduce a list of all aircrafts registered in the DRC explains that, for immatriculation, the DRC military aircrafts use the formula 9T-xxx, “in arbitrary manner”.
Within the same document, we find a list of helicopters registered with those parameters, including an HM12:
According to the document, registration number HM12 of the downed aircraft, as well as all other helicopters registered sequentially from HM1 to HM15 (with the exception of 13 and 14), had originally been registered in 1998 by the FAC at a base marked with the ICAO code “FZAA” — which corresponds to the N’Djili International Airport in Kinshasa, the capital of DRC.
It is important to note that the list specifies the model of the helicopters to be Mi-35 — a noticeably different aircraft from the one(s) involved in the incident.
However, a list published in October 2007 by the Dutch aviation magazine Scramble appears to show that on July 19, 2007, two Mi-24V helicopters with registration number 9T-HM11 and, more importantly, 9T-HM12 were registered, again by the FAC (here named “DR Congo Air Force”), as based at an airport with IATA code GOM — a.k.a. Goma International Airport:
Goma is the capital of the North Kivu province, located approximately 75 kilometers south of Rutshuru, where the crash reportedly happened. It hosts an international airport that, despite having been substantially damaged by a volcano eruption in 2002, is still operative to this day. It is important that we are able to track the helicopter in question to this location, as will be discussed later.
The 2007 registration could have been a reuse of registration numbers made available when the previously assigned aircrafts were rendered inoperable, or retired from service. The “new” HM12 can be seen, while still operational, in an undated and not geolocated picture posted in early 2016 by a user of Nairaland, a Nigerian-based online forum board:
On the same page, another apparent DRC helicopter, a Mi-8 registered as 9T-HM8, can be seen in photo on a previous posting.
It seems clear, from the available evidence, that 9T-HM12, a Mi-24 combat helicopter of Russian (post-Soviet) manufacturing, can be tracked as registered by the FAC since at least 2007. Furthermore, it appears possible that the helicopter was deployed at the Goma International Airport, before eventually crashing approximately 75 KMs away from that base on January 27, 2017.
After several rumors about “Russian pilots” being involved in the two helicopter crashes, the Georgian Ministry of Defense (MoD) admitted that two Georgian citizens were involved as crew of one of the two aircraft. First, on February 22, the retired Colonel of the Georgian Army David Makishvili published an appeal on his Facebook page to help “the Colonel and military pilot” Soso Osorauli being released from captivity:
Then, on February 23, RIA Novosti published a report from the Georgian MoD confirming that one of the pilots had been taken captive, and naming him as “Сосо Осиураули” (Soso Osiurauli, though the surname will be later corrected in Georgian articles as “Osorauli”); also stating that a second pilot, still unnamed, was being treated in an hospital in Goma.
Finally, on February 27, the Georgian website Freedom And Democracy Watch reported that the second pilot had been named by the Georgian MoD as Vyacheslav Pluzhnikov. The article even included a picture of two caucasian men that could be both Pluzhnikov and Osorauli, among a group of possible children from the DRC, and two other men whose faces had been blurred:
The article also stated that:
“Pluzhnikov was arrested in 2010 in a case known as the Enver Affair, after an alleged Russian intelligence agent code named ‘Enver’. 15 people were arrested in the swoop, mainly air force officers. Those who pleaded guilty were soon released, but those who pleaded not guilty were sentenced to prison terms of various lengths. Pluzhnikov was among those who insisted on his innocence and he was sentenced for 13 years and 6 months. After the change of power in 2012, his case, which had previously caused much controversy, was reviewed. The following year, he was released in a mass amnesty following a prisoner abuse scandal.”
Finally, after a few months of silence, Georgian TV broadcast a video (archived version) allegedly recorded by Osorauli’s kidnappers, and showing the pilot alive and in captivity, though shaken and possibly injured. The video is undated, and was rumored to have been produced to support a demand for a one million (US?) dollar ransom for the prisoner. Another undated image began circulating around the same time, which appears to show Osorauli with his possible kidnappers. The pilot seems to be wearing the same olive green uniform, and is covered with a blanket over his head:
None of the images acquired returned EXIF data useful to geolocating the captives, and nothing in the surroundings revealed more about the possible area where the images may have been taken.
Disclaimer: due to several of the identified actors not having been publicly named yet, and the fact that they are most likely still located in an active conflict area, we will obfuscate their identities in the following part of the research. An exception will be made for Osorauli and Pluzhnikov, whose names and pictures have already been widely distributed by the press and through social media.
Initial open source research on Soso Osorauli reveals possible links to the 2008 Russian-Georgian War, which would not be unusual for a military helicopter pilot on active duty. In addition to comments on him made by retired Col. Makishvili, a 2014 article by a website called For.ge seems to associate a “Soso Osorauli”, a “Krokodili or Mi-24 pilot”, to the infamous 2007 Georgia helicopter incident that preceded the 2008 war. As the incident was widely attributed to the Russian military, it is possible that the article responded to a specific political agenda; nevertheless, it’s the earliest possible reference to Osorauli that we could track in public news.
Examining social media platforms leads to the discovery of a profile of interest on ok.ru, also known as Odnoklassniki, a social networking site particularly popular in the former Soviet countries, including Georgia.
The profile in question is named using a reference to the name “Soso”, and displays the profile picture of a man apparently piloting an aircraft. The man’s appearance, and the claim on his profile to be 41 years old and located in Goma, DRC, seems to fit the description of one of the two individuals shown by the media in relation to the helicopter crash. According to the timestamp associated with the profile, his last login into ok.ru was on January 27, 2017 — the day the incident happened.
The OK profile contains a trove of images that shed light on its owner. The first photo was posted on the account on May 13, 2015, possibly already from DRC, but more conclusively, several images link what now clearly seems to be Soso Osorauli to FAC helicopters like the one that crashed.
For example, in one photo posted on 28 December 2015, Soso is shown in front of a Mil Mi-8 helicopter with registration 9T-HM 5 – confirming registration within DRC:
Another photo, also published by Georgian media in relation to the captive pilot, shows him in front of a Mil Mi-17 helicopter bearing the roundlet of the Georgian Air Force. While undated, it seems likely that it was taken before his relocation to DRC:
Mr. Osorauli can be geolocated in Goma in several of the photos posted on the ok.ru profile. For example, in an image posted on July 14, 2015, he’s shown in front of a known landmark of central Goma, the so-called “Chiduku monument”, celebrating one of the typical means of transportation for supplies in the region:
Another picture, posted on the same day and most likely taken in the same occasion, sees Osorauli standing in front of the Institut De Goma, a local university:
Overall, we can assess with moderate confidence that Soso Osorauli was located in Goma, North Kivu, since at least May 2015. At the time of this writing, we could not locate other social media accounts associated with him.
The second pilot named as involved in the crash – apparently only injured and found recovering in a hospital in Goma – was Vyacheslav Pluzhnikov. Researching connections for Osorauli’s probable ok.ru account, we quickly located a profile named after a variation of Pluzhnikov’s full name.
His profile picture shows an individual strongly resembling the second man shown in the picture of the pilots as distributed by the press:
Among his numerous posted photos, we can find several ones that depict the individual previously identified as Soso Osorauli:
More importantly, one photo posted on July 24, 2015, depicts him and three more unidentified individuals in front of the Mi-24 helicopter registered as 9T-HM 12 — the one crashed in the North Kivu jungle. This is a key piece of information, placing Pluzhnikov, at the very least, in the same facilities where operations with such helicopters were run from.
Crossing from ok.ru to Facebook, we are able to locate a profile named after another close permutation of his name. On it, together with the picture shown above, we can find Pluzhnikov posing next to Mr. Osorauli (plus two of the other unidentified men, and a couple of new individuals) in front of what is possibly the same helicopter. The picture was posted on Facebook on July 19, 2015.
Those two pictures appear to be the first ones, in time succession, where Pluzhnikov can be located with good confidence in DRC – although a few ones from the Facebook profile, posted in June, could also have been taken in Goma or even Kinshasa.
Overall, we can place the two pilots in the DRC (most likely Goma) since May (Osorauli) and July (Pluzhnikov) 2015; we can link them to the crashed helicopter; and we have discovered the presence of what may potentially be additional pilots from the same team.
One individual that recurrently appears in photos apparently taken within DRC with either or both Osorauli and Pluzhnikov is a man claiming to be 60 years of age and from Tbilisi, with a name that appears very likely to be Georgian. We will call him “the Trainer”, owing to the reconstruction of his possible role within the PMC team.
The Trainer can be seen on several photos posted on Osorauli’s ok.ru profile together with the pilot:
The Trainer can be traced in Congo much earlier than Osorauli and Pluzhnikov. The earliest photo posted on his social media presences in which he claims to be in the DRC was posted in January 2014, and shows him in a helicopter cabin, next to what apears to be an FAC pilot:
The Trainer consistently appears in association with a different Mi-24 helicopter than the one seen crashed – one that’s registered as 9T-HM5, which we had observed earlier in this report. Multiple pictures show him in front of it:
The role of this individual as a trainer is suggested by the content of his pictures on both ok.ru and a Facebook profile with his same name — most of which contain different people in pilot’s uniforms and often showing a DRC flag. Additionally, one comment left in French by a contact on his Facebook profile in January 2016 clearly mentions an “M7 training flight”, congratulating the Trainer on it:
Finally, and most importantly, the Trainer appears to receive institutional support from the FARDC/FAC. A picture posted on his Facebook profile in March 2016 shows him on board a minivan, flanked by a uniformed man who appears to be a Sergeant Major of the FAC, judging from his insignia, which includes collar pins. The minivan sports both the Georgian and DRC flags, in what could have been a formal welcoming to the Trainer and/or his team.
Other Pilots And Trainers
A small group of other individuals recurrently appear in photos as associated with Osorauli, Pluzhnikov, and/or the Trainer. Their uniforms, poses, and the locations of the pictures suggest that they may also be either pilots, or – on at least one occasion – trainers. For all those whose social media presence could be determined, their names and posted content link back to Georgia.
A few photos include:
In total, another three people were determined as consistently or sporadically appearing in photos within DRC with either Osorauli, Pluzhnikov, or the Trainer. Given their apparent younger age, they could be pilots, or junior trainers.
Why Were They There?
On February 1, 2017, the commander for the Third Military Region of the FARDC, General Leon Mushalé, conducted a press conference about the helicopters’ crash in which he declared that “the [helicopters’] manufacturer provided the services of ‘a trainer’”, without specifying his or her nationality.
The manufacturer of the Mil Mi-24 helicopters is the Mil Moscow Helicopter Plant, owned by the parent company Russian Helicopters. While an entire ecosystem of job offers for Mi-24 pilots, both in Russia and abroad, exists on web forums such as Aviaforum.ru and similar ones, we could not locate job postings that could match the deployment of any of the identified individuals.
Attempts to obtain clues of the pilots or trainers affiliation via their uniform or insignia were also unsuccessful. Both Mr. Osorauli and the Trainer, for example, are often seen in photos wearing a badge with a blue lanyard. Unfortunately, the resolution of those pictures is too low to read the information contained in the badge.
Composite of a photo of the Trainer and a previously seen one with Osorauli, both wearing a similar white badge with blue lanyard.
It is worth noting, however, that several photos showing members of the MONUSCO peacekeeping mission at the Goma International Airport show them wearing a different type of badge. This appears to confirm that there was no affiliation between the Georgian pilots and MONUSCO.
While we can confidently rule out that the Georgians were in any way linked to the UN mission, two alternative options remain open:
- That the Georgians were employed by Russian Helicopters or one of its subsidiaries to provide training to FARDC pilots in Goma;
- That they were contracted by one of the many private military companies active in DRC, in which case their role could have extended beyond the delivery of training, and included active combat support.
At this time, and with the available gathered evidence, neither of the options can be confirmed or dismissed.
It is not possible to locate a “smoking gun” – a definitive proof of why and in what capacity former military pilots from Georgia would be aboard FARDC combat helicopters in North Kivu, together with FARDC members, during a mission over an active conflict area. However, observing the timeline of the located open source content, as well as the general security, political, and extractive environment in the area over the past few years, it seems reasonable to believe that Georgian experts were hired to train FARDC pilots in counterinsurgency operations.
Equally, it is not possible to conclusively state that such pilots were involved in combat operations when the incident happened, or at any other point in time while in DRC. However, it is suspicious that at least one Georgian pilot with extensive combat expertise, Soso Osorauli, was piloting (or aboard) one of such helicopters during a combat mission.
No evidence of affiliation with the MONUSCO operations under UNSC resolution 2098 could be located, despite the pilots clearly operating from the same facilities – most notably, Goma International Airport.
North Kivu remains an area of endemic instability due to multiple factors, many of which are linked to the richness of the extractive industry in the area. It’s not surprising that capabilities of a very lacking national armed force might be supplemented through the use of international security and military experts available on the private contractors market. An entry on the DRC Air Force on Wikipedia, even states, without linking to any sources, that “foreign private military companies have reportedly been contracted to provide the DRC’s aerial reconnaissance capability using small propeller aircraft fitted with sophisticated equipment.”.
That such a partnership or direct hiring — involving private military contractors utilizing government assets such as FARDC combat helicopters in offensive operations – might exist has so far been unreported. In particular, the presence of third parties flying combat missions in FAC helicopters point to investigative work still remaining to be done.