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Arms cargo from North seized in Bangkok

Thai officials say stash includes RPGs, missiles  PLAY AUDIO

Dec 14,2009
Thai police officers and soldiers remove boxes of war weaponry from a suspect foreign-registered cargo plane onto trucks at Don Muang Airport Saturday in Bangkok. Five foreigners were detained and their foreign-registered aircraft impounded after it landed in the Thai capital Saturday with tons of weapons on board that originated in North Korea, Thai media quoted officials as saying. [REUTERS]
Thailand authorities have seized tons of heavy weapons on a plane that flew from North Korea, after the aircraft made an emergency landing in Bangkok Friday.

According to wire reports and the Bangkok Post newspaper, about 35 tons of weapons were found on an aircraft that was headed for Colombo, Sri Lanka, for another refueling stop. The final destination wasn’t known. Five crew members on board, four from Kazakhstan and one from Belarus, have been detained for questioning.

The Post identified them as: Alexandr Zrybnev, 53, Viktor Abdullayev, 58, Vitaliy Shumkov, 54, Ilyas Issakov, 53, from Kazakhstan; and Mikhail Petukhou, 54, from Belarus.

Lieutenant General Thangai Prasajaksattru, commander of Thailand’s Central Investigation Bureau, said the cargo at Bangkok’s Don Muang Airport included “rocket-propelled grenades, missiles and other war weapons.” Air Force spokesman Captain Montol Suchookorn said the chartered plane originated in North Korean capital Pyongyang and the Air Force was guarding the plane. The aircraft was registered in Georgia.

Thai security authorities said they were tipped off by their U.S. counterparts to investigate the plane. An air force official told AFP, “We were approached by the United States, seeking our cooperation to examine the suspected plane.” But Michael Turner, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok, said Saturday he was not aware of the investigation.

Thai Premier Abhisit Vejjajiva said the government will bring charges against the crew members. He added they lied to inspectors about the cargo, saying it only contained oil drilling equipment. “We will strictly follow our own laws and UN resolutions. The investigation is progressing. Charges will soon be set,” he said. “They committed two crimes, firstly they gave false information about their cargo, and secondly that cargo was found to be weapons.”

According to the Thai Foreign Ministry, the Thai government’s search of the plane and seizure of its contents was in line with the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1874.

The resolution, adopted in June after North Korea’s second nuclear test in late May, asks all UN member states to inspect all cargo to and from North Korea if they have “reasonable grounds” to believe that the cargo contains prohibited items.

Also under the resolution, the inspecting states are authorized to “seize and dispose of” the items in question. The member nations that undertake such inspections are required to submit reports that contain relevant details to the UN Sanctions Committee.

In June this year, a North Korean vessel suspected of carrying prohibited weapons was tracked by the U.S. Navy as it was reportedly heading for Myanmar. The ship later returned to North Korea. In August, the United Arab Emirates seized a shipment of North Korean weapons bound for Iran and notified the Security Council of its move.

In August, India’s coast guard detained a suspicious North Korean cargo ship, though a preliminary search only discovered that the ship was carrying sugar. Two months later, India inspected another North Korean vessel but again found no weapons. Selling weapons and missile technology has long been regarded as a major cash cow for North Korea.

The seizure came only a day after the conclusion of the U.S.-North Korea bilateral talks in Pyongyang. After the meeting, both countries said they had built “common understandings” on the need to resume the stalled six-party talks and to implement the Sept. 19, 2005 joint statement, which details the North’s denuclearization commitments in exchange for economic and energy assistance provided by the other six-party partners.

The U.S. move to notify the Thai authorities indicates its commitment to its “two-track” approach: applying pressure on the North through tough international sanctions while keeping the door open for dialogue.

A U.S. official, on condition of anonymity, told The New York Times that the U.S. administration didn’t merely want to know what the plane was carrying, but it was signaling North Korea that it would keep up the pressure even as it pursued talks about possibly resuming six-party negotiations.

North Korea has repeatedly said it would not be bound by Resolution 1874. In September, after the Security Council asked the North for clarification following the UAE’s seizure of its weapons, Sin Son-ho, its top envoy at the UN, said, “We do not feel .?.?. any need to respond to the request made by the UNSC.”

The South Korean government was also keeping close tabs on the development, albeit cautiously. A Foreign Ministry official handling UN-related affairs said he would wait for further details emerging from the Thai investigations but added, “If North Korea was really carrying weapons as the Thai government has said, then it’s a clear violation of the UN Security Council resolution.”

Another official said this investigation will serve as an opportunity to remind North Korea that international sanctions will continue for any wrongdoing and that the international community will maintain the pressure. “North Korea must realize that if it keeps violating UN resolutions, it will only be cornered and isolated,” he said.


By Yoo Jee-ho [jeeho@joongang.co.kr]



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