North Korean Weapons Smuggling Aircraft Apprehended in Thailand, Crew Detained
BANGKOK Dec 13 2009
Thai authorities reportedly acted on a tip from their American counterparts when they impounded an Ilyushin 76 transport plane Saturday and discovered 35 tons of explosives, rocket-propelled grenades and components for surface-to-air missiles — a violation of United Nations sanctions against North Korea.
The five-man crew — four from Kazakhstan and one from Belarus — were charged Sunday with illegal arms possession and refused bail. Thailand remained tightlipped about events leading to the aircraft's seizure and where it was headed.
The men, who declined comment to reporters at the courthouse, reportedly told investigators during a six-hour interrogation Sunday they believed they were carrying oil-drilling equipment and were not aware of any illicit cargo.
The latest U.N. sanctions ban the transport of certain weapons from or to North Korea—were imposed in June after the reclusive communist regime conducted a nuclear test and test-fired missiles. The sanctions were aimed at derailing North Korea's nuclear weapons program, but also banned the North's sale of any conventional arms.
North Korea has been widely accused of violating United Nations sanctions by selling weapons to nations in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Arms sales are a key source of hard currency for the impoverished North. Baek said the North is believed to have earned hundreds of millions of dollars every year by selling missiles, missile parts and other weapons to countries like Iran, Syria and Myanmar.
According to Thai Air Force spokesman Capt. Montol Suchookorn on Sunday the chartered cargo plane originated in North Korea's capital, Pyongyang, and requested to land at Don Muang airport to refuel.
U.S. Embassy spokesman Michael Turner said the embassy would not comment on if Americans had tipped off Thai authorities.
Thai authorities said the weapons were moved by trucks amid high security Saturday night from the airport to a military base in the nearby province of Nakhon Sawan.