Dubai: A swashbuckling Dubai-based businessman, who once ran for President of Mauritania, has disappeared under mysterious circumstances in western Africa along with his chartered plane and two pilots.
Rachid Moustapha, 40, a long-staying guest at the Burj Al Arab Hotel (since January 1, 2010) and President of the Mauritanian Party for Renewal, went missing in May. His family suspects he may have been kidnapped.
The last one heard of Moustapha was when he was on board a private Beechcraft King Air 200 aircraft (registration D2-FFT) en route to the Angolan capital of Luanda from the southern Atlantic city of Pointe-Noire, the economic hub of the Republic of Congo, also known as Congo-Brazzaville.
His cousin Khadijatou, a resident of Dubai for the past seven years, recalled their last meeting on May 13 inside Moustapha's Burj Al Arab suite.
"He told me he was leaving Dubai on May 17 for business meetings in Luanda and Pointe-Noire. He was scheduled to be back on May 23. I spoke to him on May 20, the evening he and his aircraft disappeared," she said.
The disappearance of the aircraft, chartered from Luanda-based Chicoil Grupo, is the subject of conflicting logs from control towers at Pointe-Noire and Luanda.
Moustapha's family suspects that the aircraft did not crash but was waylaid by influential Angolan businessmen, including Chicoil (one of the most important group of companies in Angola) owner Elias Piedoso Chimucu who did not want Moustapha to shift his assets out of the country into Dubai.
"I believe Moustapha is being held by powerful people who used to conduct business with him. Now that Moustapha has decided to move his business to Dubai, they may be worried about the potential loss of income," said Khadijatou. "Despite the fact that Moustapha is a resident of Dubai, we can't file a missing persons case here, as the events occurred outside the UAE."
During his time in Dubai, Moustapha enjoyed the high life. He hired a variety of chauffeur-driven cars including a BMW, Rolls-Royce and a Lamborghini. Evenings, one would find him unwinding at the Skyview lounge at Burj Al Arab, or the Cavalli Club at The Fairmont. Moustapha was also an avid sports enthusiast and music lover, said his family.
Moustapha was scheduled to fly from Luanda to Pointe-Noire on May 20 to meet one of the directors of a Dubai-based firm for a scrap metal deal.
Following the meeting, Moustapha arrived at Pointe-Noire airport at 2310 hours, according to his family.
Five minutes later, at 2315, Moustapha telephoned his bodyguards instructing them to wait for his arrival at Luanda airport.
That was the last time anyone heard from him. At 2336 hours, the Angolan Civil Aviation Authority filed a report saying they had "failed to get in touch" with the aircraft. The authorities, however, reported that the pilots had earlier asked for landing permission in Luanda at the expected time of arrival at 2320, the approximate time of take off from Pointe-Noire. This triggered suspicion among the family.
Given that the distance between the two airports is 474km, with an estimated flying time of 70 to 90 minutes, the plane would have barely covered any distance at all by that point.
"These timings are misleading," said Khadijatou.
"The plane would have flown about 100km at that point; meaning, it would still be somewhere above the Cabinda area (in the Angolan region north of Luanda)," she said.
However, Rui Jorge Carneiro Mangueira, Ambassador of the Embassy of the Republic of Angola, Abu Dhabi, told XPRESS "the civil aviation authority of Angola was in touch with the plane until 55km from the landing area in Luanda which, according to any map, is around Caxito, not Cabinda."
Abdallahi ould Bouna, Vice President, Mauritanian Party for Renewal, has also questioned the contradictions in the timeline saying the discrepancies have "increased the ambiguity of the mystery". "We strongly believe that there is a conspiracy against Mr Rachid Moustapha that involves some powerful parties," he said in an open letter to the Angolan government.
For three days following his disappearance, Moustapha's phone remained dead.
On May 24, when Khadijatou called his Angola number, the person at the other end said "allo allo" before disconnecting. Etisalat confirmed the call was connected, said Khadijatou.
Congo-Brazzaville civil aviation authorities broke their silence on May 27, when they released their first report saying the plane "took off from Pointe-Noire at 2321 and contact was lost at 0020."
The timing provided by the Congolese authorities clashed with the Angolan authorities' reports.
Slew of theories
During early days of the investigation, the family (through the Follow-Up Committee on The Fate Of Rachid Moustapha's Plane, a group his family set up) received an anonymous e-mail.
It read: "The plane had been diverted from its original destination. Moustapha is alive and been taken [hostage] by some business partners."
"The IP address shows the e-mail was sent from London," said Khadijatou.
"It made sense; Chimucu, the owner of Chicoil (the firm renting out the craft), was avoiding us. On May 21, he answered when I called him on his mobile phone. He asked me to call back in three hours. That was the last time he ever responded to any communication." Chimucu was in Dubai from June 9 till the first week of July, said Khadijatou.
Besides owning a company in Ras Al Khaimah, Chimucu is rumoured to be setting up a base in Dubai. The Committee's report states "Chimucu repeatedly visited Moustapha in his Dubai residence (Burj Al Arab) over three months (prior to May 20)."
When a plane disappears from the radar screen, the control tower is duty-bound to report the incident to ASECNA (Agency for Aerial Navigation Safety in Africa and Madagascar), whose regional office is in Senegal, said Khadijatou.
While ASECNA confirmed no report was filed, Mangueira said that he is unaware of the enforcement of any such procedure.
Mangueira confirmed that the plane wasn't equipped with a black box.
"We believe Congo civil aviation authorities may be involved too," said Khadijatou. "Seeing that the plane took off from Pointe-Noire, why didn't the control tower file a report to ASECNA that they lost contact with the aircraft? Could someone have been paid for their silence?"
Needle of suspicion
Khadijatou and three cousins met the Counselor of the Embassy of The Republic Of Angola, Manuel Mateus Caterca. "We informed him of our suspicion about Chicoil's involvement and the possibility that the pilots were also part of the conspiracy."
The committee has also written to Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos. A section of the letter states: "Mr President, we strongly urge the Angolan government to open an investigation… Chicoil Group Company, being the owner of the plane, cannot be excluded as a primary suspect. … Other suspects would be, we believe, some of Rachid Moustapha's powerful business associates. It might be a blackmail case very well orchestrated against Rachid Moustapha, taking into consideration his recent plans to transfer some of his business to Dubai."
While Moustapha's parents, sister and two brothers wait restlessly for news about him, his 12-year-old Angolan daughter, Soumaya, isn't as distraught. "In my heart, I know my father is still alive," she says. "I know I will see him again."
"I know one day I'll get a call about his whereabouts. It's not his time to die yet," said Khadijatou.
Moustapha's mother is going through an emotional breakdown. His sister, Teslem Bint El Moustapha, said her parents are heartbroken.
"Moustapha is our backbone. He is everything to us. He is the strength of the family. Lots of homes were able to survive thanks to his support. My mother prays day and night for his safe return. She barely eats anything, saying that it would be impossible for her to fill her stomach while her child may be starving.
"We know in our hearts that Moustapha is still alive. But in case he is not, God forbid, we need to know. We need closure," said Teslem.
Flight to nowhere
XPRESS retraces the steps of Rachid Moustapha from the time he left Dubai on May 17 till May 27, and comes across some startling discrepancies
Moustapha flies from Dubai to Luanda, Angola.
Moustapha contacts Grupo Chicoil, to charter a plane from the morning of May 20. Due to an unexplained “delay”, the plane is made available in the night. In Pointe-Noire, Moustapha meets the director of a Dubai-based company.
23:10HRS: Moustapha was dropped off at the Pointe-Noire airport.
23:15HRS: He phoned his bodyguards in Angola, asking them to head to Luanda Airport and await his arrival.
23:20.01HRS: The Angola Civil Aviation authority say the aircraft contacts the Luanda control tower, requesting landing permission at 2320.01hrs.
2329:19HOURS TO 2336:41HRS: Angola Civil Aviation say they “failed to get in touch” with the aircraft or pilots.
0000HRS TO 0300HRS: While awaiting his arrival, Moustapha’s bodyguards are approached by a man who told them their
boss wasn’t coming.
1746HRS, UAE time: A caller from the UAE got through on Moustapha’s phone. The person who answered disconnects after one second.
A spokesman from the Angolan search team declares that efforts to find the plane have been in vain.
Congo airport authorities say the plane took off from Pointe-Noire at 2321HRS and contact was lost with it at 0020HRS.
According to the time-frame provided by Congo authorities, the flight should have been above the Cabinda region when it disappeared. Cabinda is an Angolan territory sandwiched between the two Congos.
Contrasting information from the Embassy of the Republic of Angola states Angola Civil Aviation lost contact with the plane in the Caxito area, 55km away from Luanda.