Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Arms Seized by Thailand Were Iran-Bound

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The Wall Street Journal

A plane loaded with weapons from North Korea that was recently impounded in Bangkok was bound for Iran, according to documents obtained by arms-trafficking experts. The destination of the Ilyushin-76, which Thai authorities have said carried 35 tons of armaments, has been unknown. Thai officials said the plane flew to Pyongyang via Bangkok to collect its cargo, then returned to Bangkok to refuel on Dec. 11. It was seized during that stop and its five crew members were detained by Thai police. A flight plan for the IL-76, obtained by researchers in the U.S. and Belgium, shows that after Bangkok the plane was due to make refueling stops in Sri Lanka, the United Arab Emirates and Ukraine before unloading its cargo in Tehran. Iranian officials didn't respond to requests for comment. The flight plan indicates that en route to Pyongyang the plane stopped at an air force base in Azerbaijan; the nature of that stop is unclear. Azerbaijani officials couldn't be reached for comment. The apparent links among the military cargo, North Korea and Iran raise fresh questions about how nations try to evade international sanctions. The United Nations Security Council has banned the sale of small and heavy weapons from North Korea and all weapons sales from Iran. The new information is presented in a joint draft report by analysts at TransArms, based in Chicago, and the International Peace Information Service, or IPIS, of Antwerp, Belgium.

Both organizations conduct research on conflicts around the world, including how they are financed and supplied with weapons. A draft copy of the report was provided to The Wall Street Journal. The report hasn't been independently confirmed. U.S. State Department spokesman Darby Holladay declined to comment on the seizure of the weapons and referred questions to the Thai government. It remains unclear whether Iran intended to use the weapons itself. Western governments have accused Iran of supporting militants in Lebanon, the Palestinian territories and Iraq. Thai officials say they have received little information from the plane's crew. The crew say they were told the cargo was oil-drilling equipment and have denied knowing there were weapons aboard. The flight documents obtained by TransArms and IPIS state that the cargo is "oil industry spare parts." The flight's planners appear to have worked hard to maintain appearances. A packing list includes eight categories of equipment, such as "Geothermal rigs spare parts -- model MTEC6". Thai officials have said the actual cargo included shoulder-launched missiles, parts for surface-to-air missiles and electronic systems to control weapons. Arms-trafficking specialists have puzzled over the stop in Bangkok, an airport that is heavily policed because of the drug trade. "This is not an unusual flight plan for general cargo, but if it's for an arms flight, it doesn't make any sense," said Peter Danssaert, an arms-trade researcher at IPIS involved in preparing the report. (Read more...)