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Seized N. Korea plane tied to alleged smugglers

A weapons-laden cargo plane impounded in Bangkok has links to at least two men accused of global arms trafficking, including one fighting extradition to the U.S. from Thailand.
Thailand Weapons
Commander of Crime Suppression Division Col. Supisarn Pakdinarunart, left, leads an explosives disposal team to examine the seized war weapons inside an airbase in Nakhon Sawan province, central Thailand, on Tuesday.Apichart Weerawong / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

A weapons-laden cargo plane impounded in Bangkok has links to at least two men accused of global arms trafficking, including one fighting extradition to the U.S. from Thailand, an analyst said Tuesday.

The five-man crew of the aircraft that arrived from North Korea — four from Kazakhstan and one from Belarus — have been charged with illegal arms possession and face up to 10 years in prison.

The men were being held at Bangkok's high-security Klong Prem Central Prison, the current home to suspected Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, once dubbed the "Merchant of Death" for allegedly supplying weapons to dictators and warlords around the world.

Thai officials impounded the Ilyushin Il-76 transport plane when it landed in Bangkok on Saturday to refuel, and discovered what they said — exported in defiance of a U.N. embargo against North Korea.

Sketchy past
Hugh Griffiths, a researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, told The Associated Press the aircraft was previously registered under a company named Beibars, which has been linked to Serbian arms trafficker Tomislav Damnjanovic.

In the past, it has also been registered with three companies identified by the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control as firms controlled by Bout. The U.S. is trying to extradite Bout, who was arrested in March 2008 during a U.S.-led sting operation and subsequently indicted on four terrorism charges in New York.

Researchers said the arms were likely destined for African rebel groups or a rogue regime such as Myanmar. The aircraft's documentation had falsely described its cargo as oil-drilling equipment, and declared it was bound for Sri Lanka. Thai officials are skeptical that that was the true destination.

Col. Supisarn Bhakdinarinath, head of the Thai police inspection team, estimated the value of the weapons at about 500-600 million baht ($15 million-18 million).

Illicit past, cargo
Supisarn said more serious charges, possibly carrying the death penalty, would be added because the haul included explosives.

Prison director Sopon Thititam-pruek said the crew members were being held in separate cells, and guards were keeping a close eye on them to prevent them from meeting Bout.

Griffiths said the past owners of the aircraft have been documented by the United Nations as trafficking arms to Liberia, Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Sudan and Chad. He said the plane also was used to ship arms from the Balkans to Burundi in October.

"They are like flocks of migrating birds, these aircraft. They change from one company to another because the previous company has either been closed down for safety reasons or been identified in a U.N. trafficking report," Griffiths said.

Siemon Wezeman, a Senior Fellow at SIPRI, said the types of arms found in the aircraft — used to add firepower against planes and tanks in the arsenal of government forces — were typical of those used by insurgent movements, and raised suspicion they could be headed for an African rebel group.

Arming warring factions
Possible buyers included Sudan, which might pass the weapons to rebel groups in Chad, and Eritrea, which might keep them for its own arsenal or pass them on to warring factions in Somalia, said Christian LeMiere, editor of the London-based Jane's Intelligence Weekly.

The United States, which is particularly concerned about North Korea selling weapons and nuclear technology in the Middle East, reportedly tipped off Thai authorities to the illicit cargo. The U.S. Embassy has declined to comment.

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.

U.N. sanctions were imposed in June after the reclusive communist regime conducted a nuclear test and test-fired missiles. They are aimed at derailing North Korea's nuclear weapons program, but also ban North Korea's selling of any conventional arms.