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Weapons-carrying plane headed for Sri Lanka

[AP, Wednesday, 23 December 2009 09:43 No Comment]

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 that the crew also denied any knowledge of accused international weapons trafficker Victor Bout, who is in the same prison battling attempts to be extradited 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 that 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, acting chief of the Crime Suppression Division, said that 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., or UTM, to fly oil industry spare parts from Pyongyang to Tehran, Iran, with several other stops, including Bangkok, Colombo in Sri Lanka, Azerbaijan and Ukraine.

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. The plane’s papers described its cargo as oil-drilling machinery for delivery to Sri Lanka.

"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," Somsak quoted his clients as saying.

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 that 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 that 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 "or someone who can explain to them what is going on."

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 that he was unaware of the plane’s final destination.

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

"I know that the flight documents listed the cargo as oil drilling equipment. It turned out that they were carrying weapons," Kakabadze said. "After leasing the plane, I can’t be held responsible for what happened. It’s a problem for people who leased the plane. I have nothing else to say."

The authors cite confidential e-mails saying that UTM had ruled out a direct flight from Pyongyang to Tehran.

The report also raises multiple questions, including why the plane would stop in Thailand, since arms traffickers would be wiser to fly over China toward the former Soviet republics and on to Iran, rather than the well-policed southeastern Asian country.

"The government is not speculating on where the plane is from or its destination. It’s the police’s job to investigate. We’re waiting for the conclusion," said Thai government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn.

He also would not speculate on why the plane would have landed in Bangkok, but noted that the Thai capital is a regional transport hub and that "it would be more suspicious if they stopped in Laos or another country that is not a center of transportation."

He said many countries have offered to help with the investigation but all have been turned down.

It says that the final flight plan shows that the aircraft stopped at an Azerbaijani air force base a few miles (kilometers) north of the capital, Baku, on its way to North Korea, and was expected to make a stop there on its way back from Pyongyang to Tehran.

An Azerbaijani aviation spokesman Tuesday denied the plane stopped in his country, which shares a border with neighboring Iran.

"The claims that the plane made a refueling stop in Azerbaijan have nothing to do with reality," said Maharram Safarli, a spokesman for the national flag carrier AZAL. "This plane has never landed in Azerbaijan."

The researchers say that 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.

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