Weapons-carrying cargo plane headed for Sri Lanka

AP News
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Posted: Dec 23, 2009 11:04 AM

A plane seized in Bangkok with a cache of North Korean weapons wasn't headed to Iran, a senior Thai police official said Wednesday, contradicting a report from arms trafficking experts.

Separately, the five-man crew insisted their final destination was Sri Lanka and not Iran, their lawyer said after visiting the jailed men.

Defense attorney Somsak Saithong told The Associated Press the crew also denied any knowledge of accused international weapons trafficker Victor Bout, who is in the same prison battling extradition to the United States on terrorism charges.

There has been much speculation since the plane was impounded Dec. 12 about where it was headed and whether it was linked to Bout.

"They told me they don't know Victor Bout," Somsak said. He quoted the five men _ four from Kazakhstan and one from Belarus _ as saying their flight plan called for a refueling stop in Bangkok before flying on to Sri Lanka. They have been charged with illegal arms possession.

Police Col. Supisarn Bhaddinarinath said investigators have so far found no evidence that the aircraft was bound for Iran, or any link between Bout and the arms seizure.

But according to a flight plan seen by arms trafficking researchers, the aircraft was chartered by Hong Kong-based Union Top Management Ltd. to fly oil industry spare parts from Pyongyang to Tehran, Iran, with several other stops, including Bangkok, Colombo in Sri Lanka, Azerbaijan and Ukraine.

Union Top was set up by a company called R & G Management Consultancy, according to a woman who answered the door at Union Top's registered office. She said she didn't know a man called Dario Cabreros Garmendia, who signed Union Top's incorporation in Hong Kong on Nov. 2, and did not know how to reach anyone at the company.

After answering several questions she asked The Associated Press reporter to leave the office.

Garmendia listed Barcelona, Spain, as his address on another document related to the set up of the company.

Thai authorities, acting on a U.S. tip, impounded the Ilyushin Il-76 cargo plane after uncovering 35 tons of weapons, reportedly including explosives, rocket-propelled grenades and components for surface-to-air missiles.

"They always deny any involvement with the weapons or any charges they are accused of. They told me that their job was just to fly the cargo plane to its destination. They don't know about or had anything to do with the cargo itself," said Somsak.

The U.N. imposed sanctions in June banning North Korea from exporting any arms after the communist regime conducted a nuclear test and test-fired missiles. 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.

Daniel Pinkston, a Seoul-based North Korea watcher for the International Crisis Group think tank, said while the incident remains murky, it was clear that U.N. sanctions have not stopped North Korea from trying to engage in arms sales.

"It's a major source of foreign exchange and earnings for the Korean People's Army," Pinkston said. "I don't think anyone believed they were going to desist or just say, 'OK, well, you guys wrote up a tough resolution so we're gonna get out of this business now.'"

But he said cases such as the Bangkok seizure will likely have an impact on those willing to purchase North Korean weapons.

"It's very clear that if you are a buyer you run a risk of losing your cargo or getting intercepted," he said.

The Thai government has been investigating the arms cache and says it will send the results to the United Nations.

Somsak said the five men complained that they had been forced by police investigators into signing documents written in Thai. They asked to be provided with a translator.

The report on the flight plan from the nonprofit groups TransArms in the United States and IPIS of Belgium was funded by the Belgian government and Amnesty International. It could not be independently verified.

The report says the plane was registered to Air West, a cargo transport company in the former Soviet republic of Georgia. Asked to comment on whether the plane was bound for Tehran, company owner Levan Kakabadze told The Associated Press he was unaware of the plane's final destination.

Speaking by telephone from Batumi, Georgia, Kakabadze said he leased the plane to the SP Trading company and could bear no responsibility for what happened next.

Researchers say the plane's previous registration documents link it to Air Cess and Centrafrican Airlines, which are allegedly connected to Bout, who has been in prison in Thailand since he was arrested March 6, 2008.

But the report, which was released Monday, said there was not enough evidence to link the plan definitively to Bout.

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Associated Press writers Deborah Seward in Paris, Aoife White in Brussels, Aida Sultanova in Baku, Azerbaijan, Misha Dzhindzhikhashvili in Tbilisi, Georgia, Kelly Olsen in Seoul, and Min Lee in Hong Kong contributed to this report.