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Thailand Extends Detention of Plane Crew Caught With North Korean Arms Shipment

14.12.2009 13:06

By Ron Synovitz

A court in Thailand has extended by 12 days the detention of an aircraft crew that reportedly landed in Bangkok with a 35-ton arms shipment from North Korea.

The discovery on the Ilyushin Il-76 was made after an unscheduled landing in Bangkok on December 11 to refuel and check a wheel.

The crew includes a captain from Belarus and four men from Kazakhstan. A spokesman for Thailand's government says the five men initially have been charged with possession of heavy weapons and misstated details about their cargo.

Ilias Omarov, a spokesman for Kazakhstan's Foreign Ministry, told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service today that authorities in Astana are closely monitoring the case and the treatment of the crew.

"Currently, our diplomatic mission is busy with this issue," Omarov says. "They say that it was [four] Kazakh citizens who were detained and charged. They are in custody and our diplomatic mission is working to have them freed on bail."

Authorities in Thailand say they initially found rocket-propelled grenades, surface-to-air missile launchers, and other weapons on board the aircraft.

They say the cargo also included missile tubes, spare parts, and other heavy weapons from North Korea that were banned in June by a UN Security Council resolution. The plane is being sent to a military base in Thailand's north where weapons experts plan to examine additional crates that remained sealed.

The crew denies being weapons smugglers. They told authorities they thought the plane was carrying "oil-drilling equipment" and that they had no idea they were transporting arms.

Bangkok police spokesman Pongsapat Pongcharoen said information from the detained crew suggested the plane initially was scheduled to refuel in Sri Lanka after traveling from North Korea.

Panitan Wattanayagorn, a spokesman for Thailand's government, says the plane was headed to "a destination in the Middle East" to unload the cargo. Panitan says the crew told authorities they planned to refuel in the United Arabs Emirates and Azerbaijan after unloading and then fly to their final destination in Ukraine.

Crew On Unpaid Leave

In Astana, the chairman of Kazakhstan's Civil Aviation Committee told reporters today that the Ilyushin IL-76 had been owned previously by a private Kazakh airline, Beibarys. But he said it was sold by that firm in early October to a Georgian firm -- Air West Georgia.

Giorgi Bokuchava, chairman of the United Transport Administration of Georgia, told journalists in Tblisi that the plane is still listed as being owned by the Georgian firm. But he said it was being leased to a Ukrainian company for the cargo flight out of North Korea. Bokuchava also said the detained crew officially were on unpaid leave from the Georgian firm while flying the leased aircraft for the Ukrainian contractor.

The captain of the aircraft has been named by Kazakh and Thai authorities as 54-year-old Mikhail Petukhov from Belarus. Those authorities named the Kazakh crew members as Alexander Zrybnev, 53; Viktor Abdullaev, 58; Vitaly Shumkov, 54, and Ilias Isakov, 53.

In Minsk, Belarusian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Vanshyna confirmed that one of the crew members was a Belarusian citizen. But Vanshyna told reporters in the Belarusian capital today that the Foreign Ministry could not immediately confirm that the Belarusian citizen was the crew commander.

The seizure of the cargo is the latest enforcement of rules imposed in June under UN Security Council Resolution 1874 to try to stop North Korea from selling weapons. The resolution was a response to North Korea's defiant nuclear and missile tests.

Robert Blake, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, welcomed the move by authorities in Thailand to enforce the UN embargo.

But Blake, speaking in Kazakhstan, would not comment on local media reports that Thai officials had been tipped off about the illegal cargo by U.S. intelligence officials.

"We are very pleased that the government of Thailand acted in accordance with its obligation under UN Security Council resolutions to inspect the contents of this plane," Blake said. "The investigation is still at a very preliminary stage, so it would not be appropriate for me to comment on any aspect of that investigation."

In September, South Korean authorities detained four cargo containers belonging to North Korea under the same UN resolution. The tightened sanctions followed Pyongyang's second nuclear test in May and claims that North Korea has made progress in enriching weapons-grade uranium.

The weapons seizure came just one day after U.S. envoy Stephen Bosworth returned from a meeting in Pyongyang aimed at restarting stalled six-party nuclear disarmament talks.

Analysts in Seoul say the incident is an embarrassment for North Korea but is not likely to diminish Pyongyang's desire to rekindle the stalled nuclear disarmament talks.

RFE/RL's Belarus Service, as well as Talgate Bukharbaev of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, contributed to this article; with agency reports

Source: http://www.rferl.org/content/Thailand_Extends_Detention_of_Plane_Crew_Caught_With_North_Korean_Arms_Shipment/1903406.html

Copyright (c) 2009. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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