Smugglers vs. CNN: Plane talk for Somalia

There’s always going to be someone trying to make a buck. CNN foreign editors found that out the hard way as they tried to get supplies into Somalia and ended up in a bidding war with smugglers.

CNN’s advance team had chartered two planes out of Nairobi, Kenya, the jumping-off point for most media into Somalia, in order to get its equipment–including a portable, flyaway satellite uplink–and food into the country. One flight was to leave Tuesday, the other Wednesday.

However, when CNN’s crew showed up for the Tuesday flight at the Kenya charter site, they were informed that a band of cigarette smugglers had offered more money for the plane. CNN had originally agreed to pay $ 9,000 for the charter, but was told they’d better come up with an additional $ 30,000 U.S. cash in two hours or the plane was going to the smugglers.

CNN’s point person called CNN international assignment editor Stephanie Swanson in Atlanta for help, waking her at 2 a.m.

Swanson remembered there was a Citibank in Nairobi. But before the branch manager would release the cash, Swanson had to get a domestic banking official to back the loan.

Swanson tried tracking down staff in the Somalian capital of Mogadishu who could get the cash to the plane operator, and called colleagues in London and Tokyo, hoping to find a Citibank branch to back the loan. Finally she was able to convince the banker in Nairobi to put up the cash without the additional approval.

With a half-hour to go before the plane operator’s deadline, CNN staffers showed up with twice the cash needed, only to find out that the charter operator had let the plane go to the smugglers.

Nevertheless, he had a bigger plane, which could take all of the equipment and supplies that would have taken two flights.

The hitch: The price went up again. What had been a $ 9,000 charter would now cost $ 42,000.

Despite the trouble, CNN did get its equipment into Somalia with one hour of daylight remaining before the U.S. troops arrived. It was the last charter into the country before the military took over the airport.

“It has been like this every step of the way,” a tired Swanson said yesterday. “This place makes the Gulf War look like a cakewalk.”

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