Thai authorities dropped charges Thursday against a foreign plane crew accused of smuggling arms from North Korea, easing a diplomatic jam but leaving open the vexing question of where the multimillion dollar illicit arms shipment was headed.
The five-member crew from Kazakhstan and Belarus was arrested Dec. 12 when the Ilyushin Il-76 cargo plane they were flying from the North Korean capital Pyongyang landed in Bangkok. Thai authorities, acting on a tip from the United States, found 35 tons of weapons on board — a violation of U.N. sanctions against North Korea.
The crew were released from prison and handed over to immigration police Thursday evening for deportation.
Thailand and some independent arms trafficking experts say flight documents indicated the plane's cargo — listed as oil drilling equipment — was headed for the Iranian capital Tehran. The crew claimed they were ignorant of what they were really carrying.
Iran's Foreign Ministry has denied the weapons were destined for its shores.
Much is still unknown
Much is still unknown, and with the plane's crew released, the answers are unlikely to be found. "Most likely the investigation will dwindle into obscurity," said Peter Danssaert, a researcher for the Belgium-based International Peace Information Service, which has published a report on the affair.
Some have speculated the weapons — which reportedly included explosives, rocket-propelled grenades and components for surface-to-air missiles — were meant to continue on to radical Middle Eastern groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, which Iran has bankrolled and supplied with weapons in the past.
A major puzzle that lingers is why the plane landed in Bangkok for refueling.
"Why fly through Thailand?" asked Brian Johnson-Thomas, a co-author of the International Peace Information Service's report.
He pointed out in a telephone interview that the plane's circuitous flight plan — through Sri Lanka, Azerbaijan and Ukraine — substantially increased its risk of interception. In addition, Thailand's close ties with the U.S. made it likely to follow Washington's lead in cracking down on such shipments.
The U.N. imposed sanctions in June banning North Korea from exporting any arms after it conducted a nuclear test and test-fired missiles. 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.
Was the affair a setup?
In the absence of an alternative explanation, Johnson-Thomas, who has also done research for the United Nations and the EU, said the affair may have been a setup: a way for Washington to pressure Thailand to extradite alleged arms trafficking kingpin, Russian Viktor Bout, who has been in Thai custody for almost two years.
The plane was once linked to a company controlled by Bout, and its high-profile seizure put the spotlight on the problem of illicit arms trafficking.
Thai media have cited other analysts and diplomats making similar speculations.
Bout was arrested in March 2008 in Bangkok in a U.S. sting operation, and Washington is seeking his extradition on terrorism charges. Thailand rejected the request in August, but an appeal is pending.
U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley denied that the case had any link to Bout's. He said that the U.S. was "grateful" to Thailand for its investigation of the plane and its crew. He added: "I wouldn't suggest that this is necessarily the end of the legal road here."
Thailand's Attorney General's Office said the decision to drop charges against the Il-76 crew was made after the governments of Belarus and Kazakhstan contacted the Thai Foreign Ministry and requested the crew's release so they can be investigated at home.
"To charge them in Thailand could affect the good relationship between the countries," said Thanaphit Mollaphruek, a spokesman for the Attorney General's Office. "They were only here for refueling."
In a one-sentence statement, Kazakhstan's Foreign Ministry said it would cooperate in ensuring the repatriation of the crew. The Interfax news agency cited a spokesman for Kazakhstan's General Prosecutor saying that a decision would be made on whether to prosecute the men upon their return.
Hugh Griffiths, a researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, said it is unlikely the men will be prosecuted by Kazakhstan.
"It looks it has all paid off, all of our letters and efforts, the efforts of our government. I'm amazed," said Yanna Abdullayeva, daughter of flight navigator Viktor Abdullayev, speaking by telephone from Shymkent, Kazakhstan, the hometown of four of the crew. "We can't wait to set the table for our boys as soon as they're home."