Captured plane linked to smugglers

Illegal firearms, explosives found in Thailand

By Grant Peck
Associated Press / December 16, 2009

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BANGKOK - 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 United States from Thailand, an analyst said yesterday.

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 Saturday to refuel, and discovered what they said was 35 tons of explosives, rocket-propelled grenades, components for surface-to-air missiles, and other armaments - exported in defiance of a UN embargo against North Korea.

Hugh Griffiths, a researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, said 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 US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control as firms controlled by Bout. The United States 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 probably 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.

Colonel Supisarn Bhakdinarinath, head of the Thai police inspection team, estimated the value of the weapons at about $15-18 million.

Supisarn said more serious charges 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 UN trafficking report,’’ Griffiths said.

Siemon Wezeman, a Senior Fellow at SIPRI, said the types of arms found in the aircraft were typical of those used by insurgent movements and raised suspicion they could be headed for an African rebel group.