Thais probe destination for seized NKorean weapons

AP News
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Posted: Dec 15, 2009 1:01 AM

Thai authorities focused Tuesday on the mammoth task of inspecting 35 tons of weapons seized from a cargo plane loaded in North Korea, as details of the aircraft's alleged shady past emerged but its ultimate destination remained a mystery.

More than 100 police and military experts planned an in-depth analysis of the 145 boxes and crates unloaded from the Ilyushin Il-76 transport plane, which was impounded Saturday during what authorities called a scheduled refueling stop in Bangkok.

Police Col. Supisarn Bhakdinarinath, head of the police inspection team, said results were not expected to be made public for several days. An initial review found explosives, rocket-propelled grenades, components for surface-to-air missiles and other armaments, all of which were moved under high security to an Air Force base in the nearby province of Nakhon Sawan.

"Our objective is to identify in detail the arms and weapons we found, to determine their type, their source of production, their destructive potential, how dangerous they are to people and the laws that apply" to transporting them, Supisarn said.

The five-man crew _ four from Kazakhstan and one from Belarus _ were denied bail Monday and ordered held for an extendable period of 12 days. Charged with illegal arms possession, they face up to 10 years in prison but the charge and penalty could change depending on what inspectors find, he said.

The men were being held at Bangkok's high-security Klong Prem Central Prison, the current home to suspected Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, once dubbed the "Merchant of Death" for allegedly supplying arms to dictators and warlords around the world. The U.S. is trying to extradite Bout, who was arrested in March 2008 during a U.S.-led sting operation and subsequently indicted on four terrorism charges in New York.

Another link to Bout surfaced among details pointing to the plane's long history of making deliveries for arms dealers, said Hugh Griffiths, a researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, a think tank that is a world leader in tracking the arms trade and analyzing military spending.

According to the crew's Thai lawyer, the plane was registered to Air West, a cargo transport company in the former Soviet republic of Georgia.

Prior to that it was registered under a company named Beibars linked to Serbian arms trafficker Tonislav Damnjanovic, and before that registered with three companies identified by the U.S. Treasury Department as firms controlled by Bout, said Griffiths, who is leading a project monitoring air cargo companies involved in arms trafficking.

"They are like flocks of migrating birds, these aircraft. They change from one company to another because the previous company has either been closed down for safety reasons or been identified in a U.N. trafficking report," he said.

In this case, he said the arms dealers changed the plane's country of registration to Georgia because the European Union had banned all cargo carriers registered in Kazakhstan, where Beibars is registered and where four of the crew members come from.

Griffiths said the past owners of the aircraft have been documented by the United Nations as trafficking arms to Liberia, Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Sudan and Chad. He said the plane also was used to ship arms from the Balkans to Burundi in October.

The plane has since continued to change hands. Officials in Kazakhstan and Georgia said Monday that the Air West plane was leased recently to SP Trading Ltd. for transporting cargo. The company operates out of New Zealand, said Kazakhstan's Foreign Ministry spokesman Ilyas Omarov.

Military analysts said Monday that the arms were likely destined for African rebel groups or a rogue regime like Myanmar.

Thai government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn said authorities were also investigating the Middle East as a possible destination, even though the flight plan indicated the aircraft was headed for the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo.

Investigations into weapons trafficking shows that documentation such as a flight plan "doesn't mean anything," said Siemon Wezeman, a senior fellow for the Arms Transfers Project of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

The United States, which is particularly concerned about North Korea selling weapons and nuclear technology in the Middle East, reportedly tipped off Thai authorities to the illicit cargo, according to Thai media reports that the government and U.S. Embassy declined to comment on.

Army Gen. Walter "Skip" Sharp, the top U.S. military commander in Korea, said in Washington that he was "not going to give away any of the intelligence as far as how we're watching to see what North Korea is doing up there."

Impoverished North Korea is believed to earn hundreds of millions of dollars every year by selling missiles, missile parts and other weapons to countries such as Iran, Syria and Myanmar.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton praised the seizure, saying it "shows that sanctions can prevent the proliferation of weapons and it shows that the international community when it stands together can make a very strong statement."

The plane's manifest had described the cargo as oil-drilling equipment, and the crew said the plane was supposed to deliver its cargo to Sri Lanka.

The U.N. sanctions _ which ban North Korea from exporting any arms _ were imposed in June after the reclusive communist regime conducted a nuclear test and test-fired missiles. They are aimed at derailing North Korea's nuclear weapons program, but also ban North Korea's selling any conventional arms.

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Associated Press writers Grant Peck and Jane Fugal in Bangkok, Malin Rising in Stockholm, Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow and Foster Klug in Washington contributed to this report.