Thai authorities halt shipment of DPRK-made weapons

UPDATE 13:  According to the Times of London, the weapons were headed for Hamas and Hezbollah:

An aircraft full of weapons seized in Bangkok last year was heading from North Korea to Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia, and Hamas, the Palestinian group, Avigdor Lieberman, the Israeli Foreign Minister, said yesterday.

The Thai authorities said that the aircraft was carrying 35 tonnes of weapons, including rockets and rocket-propelled grenades. The Thai Government informed the UN that the haul had been bound for Iran, which is believed to ship weapons to its ally Syria, which distributes them to Hezbollah or Hamas.

North Korea had the “intention to smuggle these weapons to Hamas and to Hezbollah”, Mr Lieberman said in Japan, where he was on an official visit. “This co-operation between North Korea and Syria [does not] improve the economic situation in their countries,” he added.

UPDATE 12: Thailand to release pilots.  According to the AP (via the Washington Post):

Thai prosecutors dropped charges against the five-man crew of an aircraft accused of smuggling weapons from North Korea, saying Thursday the men would be deported to preserve good relations with their home countries.

The Attorney General’s Office said the decision was made after the governments of Belarus and Kazakhstan contacted the Thai Foreign Ministry and requested the crew’s release to face prosecution at home.

“To charge them in Thailand could effect the good relationship between the countries,” said Thanaphit Mollaphruek, a spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office. “We have decided to drop all the charges and deport them to their home countries.”

“To charge them in this case would not be a benefit to Thailand,” he added.

The crew – four Kazakhs and a Belarusian – were expected to be released later in the day, said their lawyer Somsak Saithong.

Thailand’s Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya indicated earlier this month the men would be released, telling reporters in Geneva the government had “suggested to the office of the attorney general to release them because the U.N. resolution does not oblige Thailand to … bring up charges on the pilots and the crew.”

Thursday’s decision was likely to spark international criticism. The weapons’ ultimate destination remains a mystery, though Thailand has said the plane’s final destination appears to have been Iran. Experts have also voiced concerns that authorities in the former Soviet republics have turned a blind eye to illicit activities of air freight companies that use Soviet-era planes to fly anything anywhere for a price.

A Thai government report to the U.N. Security Council, leaked to reporters in late January said the aircraft was bound for Tehran’s Mahrabad Airport.

But Thai government spokesman Panitan Wattanayarkorn said subsequently that “to say that the weapons are going to Iran, that might be inexact.”

“The report only says where the plane was going to according to its flight plan, but it doesn’t say where the weapons were going to,” he said. “It’s still under investigation, and the suspects are under our legal system.”

Investigations by The Associated Press in several countries showed the flight was facilitated by a web of holding companies and fake addresses from New Zealand to Barcelona designed to disguise the movement of the weapons.

Read previous posts on this topic below:

UPDATE 11: More information from the Bangkok Post.

UPDATE 10: Thais Say North Korea Arms Were Iran-Bound.  According to the New York Times:

A large shipment of North Korean weapons seized here in December was bound for an airport in Iran, according to a Thai government report submitted to the United Nations and leaked to news agencies.

But a Thai government spokesman in Bangkok said the report, which was prepared by the Thai Foreign Ministry, was not conclusive because investigations were continuing.

Diplomats and Thai government officials appear to agree that the weapons were manufactured and shipped from North Korea in violation of a United Nations arms embargo. There also appears to be agreement that the Thai authorities searched the aircraft on a tip-off by American intelligence agencies. The crew members, who are being detained at a Bangkok prison, say they were told that they were carrying oil-drilling equipment.

Numerous versions of airway bills and itineraries are circulating with little certainty as to which are authentic. The Thai lawyer for the crew, Somsak Saithong, said Sunday that the crew gave him an airway bill that says the weapons were ordered by an Iranian company. This appears to contradict other documents that list companies in Ukraine and Hong Kong.

According to Bloomberg News, which obtained a copy of the Thai government report, the cargo was destined for Mahrabad Airport in Tehran. The shipper was listed as Korea Mechanical Industry Co.

A U.N. Security Council committee is assessing the Thai report and is drafting letters that will be sent to North Korea and other governments requesting further information, according to the diplomats quoted by Bloomberg. The committee will report on the case to the full Security Council on Feb. 11.

UPDATE 9: According to Des Carney at the International Relations and Security Network:

North Korea’s Transnational Arms Industry

Acting on a tip-off from US intelligence, officials at Don Muang Airport in Bangkok searched an Ilyushin-76 cargo plane, registered as flight 4L-AWA, reportedly carrying ‘oil industry spare parts’ that had stopped to refuel on 11 December 2009.

The search yielded a 35-ton haul of North Korean weaponry that included rocket-propelled grenades, missile and rocket launchers, missile tubes, surface-to-air missile launchers, spare parts and other heavy weapons, at an estimated value of $18 million. The shipment was widely reported to be headed to Iran, while the weapons are typical of non-state armed groups such as Hamas or Hizbollah, or militant organizations in Africa.

It is the first time a North Korean weapons shipment by air has been interdicted.  Weapons cargoes from several ships have been seized in recent years, most significantly aboard the ANL Australia, a Bahamas-flagged vessel that contained 10 container loads of weapons bound for Iran, after the ship docked in the United Arab Emirates in July 2009.

The sanctions regime banning North Korea’s $1 billion per year arms exports is intended to curb their nuclear weapons program and stems from UN Security Council resolutions 1718 (2006) and 1874 (2009).

State-led criminal industry
However, during North Korea’s years in international isolation it developed all manner of tactics with which to conduct its criminal industry.

A UN Panel of Experts interim report examining the efficacy of the sanctions regime claims that the Second Economic Council of the ruling North Korean Worker’s Party, in charge of production and export of weapons, “has established a highly sophisticated international network for the acquisition, marketing and sale of arms and military equipment.”

The report, which was issued in November to the UN Security Council but was obtained by several media outlets, forewarned of the tactics used aboard flight 4L-AWA by highlighting methods that “include falsification of manifests, fallacious labelling and description of cargo, the use of multiple layers of intermediaries, ‘shell’ companies and financial institutions to hide the true originators and recipients.”

Aside from the arms trade, a 2008 US Congressional Research Service report documents how the pariah state uses its foreign diplomats and workers stationed abroad and taps into criminal gangs to shift narcotics, counterfeit currency and contraband cigarettes, and engage in endangered species and human trafficking.

“Whenever a state is subject to UN sanctions, the level of clandestine and illicit trade increases,” Hugh Griffiths, expert on illicit arms trafficking at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, told ISN Security Watch.

“This is because trade is criminalized – trading patterns may change as a result, but research from the former Yugoslavia and Iraq shows that state authorities will not stop trade simply because a UN Security Council resolution has now ruled it to be illicit.

“On the contrary, trade may become more centralized in that state security services may play a more prominent role in organizing it,” he said.

Forging illicit networks
Meanwhile, the Bangkok interdiction highlights Pyongyang’s use of a globalized trading network and, importantly, how illicit arms brokers escape international attention.

According to documents obtained by Chicago-based TransArms and Brussels-based International Peace Information Service (IPIS), Flight 4L-AWA was registered to AirWest Ltd in Georgia, and is currently owned by Overseas Cargo FZE, based in Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. The plane had previous registration links to self-professed gunrunner Tomislav Damnjanovic and to airlines owned by Victor Bout, a notorious arms dealer that was arrested in Thailand in 2008.

On 5 November 2009, the plane was leased to New Zealand-based SP Trading, which had been incorporated four months earlier by GT Group Ltd, a Vanuatu-based financial secrecy consultancy that specialises in “offshore company services for privacy, legal tax avoidance, asset protection, financial independence and freedom.”

The analysis of TransArms and IPIS suggests that Hong Kong-based Union Top Management chartered the plane from SP Trading on 4 December and took charge of the arms delivery. The plane was scheduled for multiple stops en route to Iran, including Thailand, Sri Lanka, Azerbaijan and Ukraine, before its interdiction in Bangkok.

The crew of Flight 4L-AWA, a Belarusian and four Kazakhstanis, were arrested and charged with illegally transporting arms, but efforts to trace the holding companies to the chief organizers have thus far resulted in a series of dead ends.

“The complexity of the operation points to an experienced international organization that knows how to set up shell companies and cut-outs to insure the real owner of the shipment and its ultimate destination remain very difficult to trace,” Douglas Farah, expert on arms smuggling and senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center in Virginia, told ISN Security Watch.

Shadow globalization
While the brokers behind the delivery are yet to be revealed, the case illustrates how technological and economic globalization provides opportunities to work in the shadows. National attempts to attract international capital, such as tax havens and minimal registration procedures, and financial liberalization in global banking, create transnational spaces that allow illicit brokers to set up front companies and cover their payment transfers to give the appearance of an essentially legitimate business network.

In New Zealand, where lax incorporation laws do not require a proof of identity or a registered residential address, ‘ready to go’ shell companies are easily created and often used to protect anonymity. The Dominion Post reports that SP Trading is one of 1,089 registered New Zealand companies owned by VicAm (Auckland) Ltd, 338 of which share the same ‘virtual’ offices at level five, 369 Queen St, Auckland. Company registration documents show that none of the companies have a stated trading function, while SP Trading appears to be a one-time use, legitimately incorporated company that was created to pass funds from the buyers to North Korea.

“Nearly all arms brokers involved in illicit arms transfers are ‘legitimate’ businessmen 98 percent of the time,” Griffiths told ISN Security Watch. “As such, they have companies and bank accounts and use the same methods employed by ‘upperworld’ or licit businesses all over the world.

“The real difference is in the level of document falsification they may have to undertake and the number of sub-contractors or front companies they work through.”

Officials in New Zealand are investigating individuals connected to the companies involved, while the US Justice Department is reportedly ready to indict SP Trading for its participation in shipping arms to Iran. However, the relative fixity of state regulation and a lack of intergovernmental cooperation on arms trafficking practices allow transnational informal networks a far greater degree of flexibility.

That Pyongyang would use such networks makes good business sense. Outsourcing various facets of production and delivery has been a trend in the defense industry for years, and there is no reason to suggest that North Korea would not follow the same path. By outsourcing delivery, North Korea creates a division of labor that minimizes the risk of interdiction and exposure.

“[A]nything traceable to North Korea will be scrutinized [...] so it is in [their] interests to disguise the movements of these weapons,” Farah told ISN Security Watch. “North Korea has long mastered this ‘outsourcing,’ and seldom, if ever, delivers anything directly.”

So have illicit arms dealers found a prolific and obdurate wholesaler? While there is no way of knowing how many shipments slip through the net, officials concerned with weapons proliferation can at least take heart in the latest interdiction.

Arms brokers “tend to operate on the basis of a relatively cautious risk assessment unless offered a deal which is too good to be true,” Griffiths concluded. “[T]here seems to be a risk of interdiction and subsequent exposure attached to sourcing arms from North Korea that may not be the case elsewhere.”

UPDATE 8: According to the Sydney Morning Herald:

US authorities plan to indict a New Zealand company allegedly involved in selling North Korean arms to Iran, sources linked to the investigation say.

They are trying to track down shadowy figures using a labyrinth of thousands of Auckland companies registered to an office on Queen Street, Auckland’s main street.

International organisations fear New Zealand’s casual company registration system makes laundering money and financing terrorism easy.

Most of the companies in question were set up by the Vanuatu-based GT Group, controlled by the New Zealand accountant Geoffrey Taylor and sons, Ian and Michael. None have obvious purpose, and none of their directors can be traced. It is not suggested that the Taylors had any knowledge of the subsequent operations of the companies they set up.

“Indictments are coming and they will be big,” a source said.

New Zealand’s Serious Fraud Office, police and Reserve Bank are also investigating but, in an embarrassment to the country’s authorities, the US Justice Department is preparing indictments a week before the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, visits New Zealand.

The issue surfaced when one of GT’s creations, SP Trading, chartered a Georgia-registered cargo plane that was seized by Thai police on December 12.

It was carrying 35 tonnes of explosives and anti-aircraft missiles from North Korea bound, sources say, for Iran.

Sources say international inquiries suggest SP was set up as a “one-time use” company solely to charter the plane; that Iran used SP to pay North Korea; and that SP’s New Zealand address allowed it to use a prominent US bank, unaware of the true purpose, to launder the money to the North Korean capital, Pyongyang.

GT Group will only say SP was set up “at the request of one of our professional clients based in the United Kingdom”. Sources say the client is the target of US interest.

If the Taylors do not reveal the identity of the people they sold SP’s registration to, they are liable to indictment.

A US Justice Department spokesman in Manhattan yesterday would not confirm the department’s interest, other than to say it was aware of the issue and a statement would be made later.

UPDATE 7:  According to the Asia Times:

The Air West flight’s outbound journey was normal enough. After leaving Ukraine, the aircraft stopped to refuel in Azerbaijan, Dubai in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Bangkok before landing in Pyongyang. After picking up the cargo in North Korea, the crew told authorities, the flight was scheduled to stop in Bangkok, Sri Lanka, the UAE and finally Ukraine. What they haven’t told investigators is where they planned to offload the weapons.

Thai authorities are baffled about why the plane stopped in Bangkok on the return trip since Thailand is known for close ties to the United States. A more direct route would have been over China, stopping in Lashio or Mandalay in Myanmar to refuel. Another flight from North Korea in November 2008 took this route in an attempt to take cargo to Iran that American authorities feared could be related to weapons of mass destruction. That flight was blocked when India refused to allow the plane to fly through its airspace. The Air West flight’s scheduled stop in Colombo, Sri Lanka, was likely an attempt to avoid a repeat.

A search of the plane’s cargo after a tip-off from US intelligence sources found 35 tonnes of crated weapons inside the fuselage, according to Thai authorities. The haul included large numbers of rocket propelled grenades (RPGs), man-portable surface-to-air missiles, and two mobile multiple-rocket launchers, either M-1985 or M-1991′s, capable of firing 240mm rockets. The weapons were removed by the Thai military to Takhili Air Force base in central Nakhon Sawan, north of Bangkok. Thai authorities estimated the value of the cargo at around US$18 million. The crew, who are likely to be telling the truth, said they believed they were carrying heavy equipment for oil operations.

The next step is for the weapons to be inventoried and reported to the UN’s North Korea Sanctions Committee, which is mandated to investigate violations of the sanctions. Under UN resolutions, the weapons should then be destroyed, although there is some debate in Thailand about whether the weapons will be kept for its armed forces.

The crew, four from Kazakhstan and one from Belarus, are all men in their 50s and former members of the Soviet air force. Mikhail Petukhov, the Belarusian pilot, served in the Soviet air force for almost 20 years. Kazakh Communications Ministry Civil Aviation Committee chairman, Radilbek Adimolda, said the Kazakh pilots were on leave from East Wind, a Kazakh private airline.

International trafficking networks make extensive use of former Soviet pilots and planes, researchers say. The planes are notorious for being under-serviced and in violation of safety standards. The pilots, often without work for months, are willing to fly unsafe aircraft to obscure destinations and to look the other way on the cargo. The people behind the networks are rarely identified.

Thai authorities are holding the men in Klong Prem prison on charges of falsifying information on their cargo declaration and transporting weapons. If convicted the men could face up to 10 years in Thai prison. Requests for bail were rejected.

All the men were working on contract to Air West, a company registered in the Republic of Georgia and holding the registration for the Ilyushin IL-76 freighter seized in Bangkok. The IL-76 was designed to carry heavy machinery to remote areas of Russia. Its ability to land on rough airstrips in remote regions makes it an ideal aircraft for transporting illicit cargoes.

The aircraft allegedly has a long involvement in transporting shady cargos. According to sources in the airfreight business, planes frequently change hands and registration numbers. The IL-76 detained in Bangkok was previously owned by a private Kazakh company, East Wing, then bought by Kazakh airline Beibers, which in turn sold it on to Air West, Georgia, in October, according to the Kazakh Transportation and Communications Ministry. Air West was registered in Batumi, Georgia in 2008 and its office is in the Ukraine.

For this flight, the plane was leased out to SP Transport Limited, a Ukrainian company. New Zealand authorities are also investigating a company with the same name. Both companies have a Lu Zhang listed as their director. The New Zealand company’s shares are held by VICAM (Auckland) Ltd, which in turn is owned by Vanuatu-based GT Group.

Security analysts and freight operators say this type of paper trail is par for the course. Companies are shut down after being identified as trafficking in weapons or other illicit items or violation of air safety regulations, then open under different names. Aircraft similarly change registration, or are sold on or leased to other freight companies to disguise their business.

The detention of plane and crew in Bangkok may scare off would-be customers for North Korean arms. It is the second time a large weapons shipment has been interdicted since the imposition of UN Resolution 1874, passed in response to Pyongyang’s refusal to stop its uranium enrichment program and ballistic missile tests held earlier this year. The resolution bans the transfer of heavy weapons as well as missiles and spare parts from North Korea and calls on countries to “inspect and destroy” those weapons.

Resolution 1874 is non-binding and relies on the resolve of member countries to enforce. However, in contrast to the rare seizure of North Korean weapons in years prior to the resolution, several actions have taken place since June to interdict stop North Korean arms shipments. A North Korea-registered vessel believed to be carrying weapons for Myanmar was forced to turn back in July after that country declared it would not allow the ship to dock. United Arab Emirates authorities in August seized a Bahamian-flagged ship, the ANL-Australia, which was found to be carrying North Korean military equipment destined for Iran and listed in the ship’s manifest as oil-related. India has stopped at least two more North Korean vessels in its waters waters, although neither was found to be carrying weapons.

A halt in weapons sales would be a heavy blow to cash-starved North Korea, especially combined with the cutting-off of South Korean handouts that have kept the country’s economy going. Arms are one of North Korea’s biggest earners of foreign currency earners. Analysts say the regime earns more than $1 billion a year through arms sales, often to other rogue regimes or to rebel groups, many connected to gross human rights abuses. Its biggest sales are ballistic missiles to Iran and other Middle Eastern countries and possibly to Myanmar. Some security analysts claim the Bangkok seizure could even force the reclusive regime back into nuclear disarmament talks in order to win much-needed aid.

…The US praised Thailand for its help in interdiction the weapons shipment. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters in Washington two days after the arrest, “We are very pleased to see strong action taken by the Thais and it would not have been possible without strong action of the United Nations.” The US Embassy has refused to confirm or deny an American role in the incident, although Thai officials have repeatedly cited American intelligence tipping them off to the shipment.

This is the second time in two years that Thai authorities have supported American efforts against international arms trafficking. In March 2008, US intelligence and law enforcement agencies carried out a sting in Bangkok that resulted in the arrest of international arms merchants Viktor Bout. Bout is accused of arranging shipments of millions of dollars worth of weapons to rebel and terrorist groups and governments around the world and has been indicted in New York on four charges related to terrorism. He maintains the charges against him are false. An attempt by the US to have him extradited was blocked by the Thai courts in August.

Although Bout is not believed to have had a role in the shipment of arms detained in Bangkok, there are some curious links to his trafficking network. The weapons plane had been registered to three companies previously identified by the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control as owned by Bout. Beibers, the Kazakh company which sold the plane to Air West has been linked to alleged Serbian arms trafficker Tomislav Damnjanovic.

The facilitators and buyers of this shipment so far remain a mystery. The winding paper trail and fly-by-night companies involved make shipments such as these difficult to trace. Initial speculation was that the shipment was destined for Sri Lanka, Pakistan or the Middle East. In a commentary published in the Washington Post on Friday, Dennis Blair, the US director for national intelligence, gave a better indication of where the weapons had been destined to go. “Teamwork among different agencies in the United States and partners abroad just last week led to the interdiction of a Middle East-bound cargo of North Korean weapons,” he wrote.

Whatever the intended destination for the weapons, the seizure of the plane and crew reiterates American resolve to isolate North Korea and force it back to the negotiating table. It also shows its ability to call in favors from friends to achieve this aim. For international arms merchants and their customers it may be time to look for a different source of product.

UPDATE 6:  According to the Moscow Times, the plane was headed to Kiev (Dec. 28):

Two weeks after the plane was seized, the key questions of who organized the shipment and where it was headed remain unanswered.

In an interview with Itar-Tass and RIA-Novosti published Friday, the plane’s chief pilot, Ilyas Isakov of Kazakhstan, insisted that the final destination was Kiev, but arms trafficking experts published a report a week earlier saying it was headed to Iran.

“We were to fly to Ukraine,” Isakov said. “I don’t know what the cargo owners intended to do next, but we were hired to fly it to Kiev’s Boryspil Airport.”

He said the crew was hired by a Ukrainian air freighter called Aviatek to pick up 35.8 tons of cargo in Pyongyang, North Korea — which included 25 tons of oil-drilling equipment and other cargo in sealed wooden boxes.

A spokesman for the Ukrainian Transportation Ministry contacted Friday would not say if a company called Aviatek is in the ministry’s registry. The search engine of the global aviation registry — www.aerotransport.org — had no listing for a company by that name.

Ukraine’s Council on National Security and Defense said in a statement Friday that no Ukrainian nationals or companies were involved in smuggling the North Korean arms.

UPDATE 5:  Foreign nationals on the plane maintain they were headed for Sri Lanaka.  According to the Associated Press:

A plane seized in Bangkok with a cache of North Korean weapons wasn’t headed to Iran, a senior Thai police official said Wednesday, contradicting a report from arms trafficking experts.

Separately, the five-man crew insisted their final destination was Sri Lanka and not Iran, their lawyer said after visiting the jailed men.

Defense attorney Somsak Saithong told The Associated Press the crew also denied any knowledge of accused international weapons trafficker Victor Bout, who is in the same prison battling extradition to the United States on terrorism charges.

There has been much speculation since the plane was impounded Dec. 12 about where it was headed and whether it was linked to Bout.

“They told me they don’t know Victor Bout,” Somsak said. He quoted the five men — four from Kazakhstan and one from Belarus — as saying their flight plan called for a refueling stop in Bangkok before flying on to Sri Lanka. They have been charged with illegal arms possession.

Police Col. Supisarn Bhaddinarinath said investigators have so far found no evidence that the aircraft was bound for Iran, or any link between Bout and the arms seizure.

But according to a flight plan seen by arms trafficking researchers, the aircraft was chartered by Hong Kong-based Union Top Management Ltd. to fly oil industry spare parts from Pyongyang to Tehran, Iran, with several other stops, including Bangkok, Colombo in Sri Lanka, Azerbaijan and Ukraine.

Union Top was set up by a company called R & G Management Consultancy, according to a woman who answered the door at Union Top’s registered office. She said she didn’t know a man called Dario Cabreros Garmendia, who signed Union Top’s incorporation in Hong Kong on Nov. 2, and did not know how to reach anyone at the company.

After answering several questions she asked The Associated Press reporter to leave the office.

Garmendia listed Barcelona, Spain, as his address on another document related to the set up of the company.

Thai authorities, acting on a U.S. tip, impounded the Ilyushin Il-76 cargo plane after uncovering 35 tons of weapons, reportedly including explosives, rocket-propelled grenades and components for surface-to-air missiles.

“They always deny any involvement with the weapons or any charges they are accused of. They told me that their job was just to fly the cargo plane to its destination. They don’t know about or had anything to do with the cargo itself,” said Somsak.

The U.N. imposed sanctions in June banning North Korea from exporting any arms after the communist regime conducted a nuclear test and test-fired missiles. 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.

Daniel Pinkston, a Seoul-based North Korea watcher for the International Crisis Group think tank, said while the incident remains murky, it was clear that U.N. sanctions have not stopped North Korea from trying to engage in arms sales.

“It’s a major source of foreign exchange and earnings for the Korean People’s Army,” Pinkston said. “I don’t think anyone believed they were going to desist or just say, ‘OK, well, you guys wrote up a tough resolution so we’re gonna get out of this business now.’”

But he said cases such as the Bangkok seizure will likely have an impact on those willing to purchase North Korean weapons.

“It’s very clear that if you are a buyer you run a risk of losing your cargo or getting intercepted,” he said.

The Thai government has been investigating the arms cache and says it will send the results to the United Nations.

Somsak said the five men complained that they had been forced by police investigators into signing documents written in Thai. They asked to be provided with a translator.

The report on the flight plan from the nonprofit groups TransArms in the United States and IPIS of Belgium was funded by the Belgian government and Amnesty International. It could not be independently verified.

The report says the plane was registered to Air West, a cargo transport company in the former Soviet republic of Georgia. Asked to comment on whether the plane was bound for Tehran, company owner Levan Kakabadze told The Associated Press he was unaware of the plane’s final destination.

Speaking by telephone from Batumi, Georgia, Kakabadze said he leased the plane to the SP Trading company and could bear no responsibility for what happened next.

Researchers say the plane’s previous registration documents link it to Air Cess and Centrafrican Airlines, which are allegedly connected to Bout, who has been in prison in Thailand since he was arrested March 6, 2008.

But the report, which was released Monday, said there was not enough evidence to link the plan definitively to Bout.

UPDATE 4:  A new report claims the shipment was headed to Iran. According to the Wall Street Journal:

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.

UPDATE 3:  More from the AFP:

Officials in Kazakhstan — where an airline previously owned the seized Ilyushin Il-76 aircraft — said the plane had been leased by the Georgian owners to a company called SP Trading in New Zealand.

“According to the information of the Kazakh diplomatic mission in Thailand and competent organs in Kazakhstan, the detained Ilyushin-76 aircraft was… rented to a New Zealand company, SP Trading Limited, to carry out the delivery of cargo,” Kazakh foreign ministry spokesman Ilyas Omarov said Monday.

A company called SP Trading is on the New Zealand Companies Register with an office in Auckland. The only listed director is Lu Zhang and all the company shares are owned by another company Vicam (Auckland) Ltd.

Vicam in turn is owned by Vanuatu-based GT Group, whose website says it provides services including privacy, legal tax avoidance, and asset protection.

Attempts by journalists to visit or contact SP Trading, which was incorporated in July this year, and Zhang have been unsuccessful, New Zealand media reports said.

UPDATE 2: According to the Wall Street Journal the hot potato has passed to New Zealand:

Officials in Kazakhstan and the Republic of Georgia have said the aircraft, which is managed by Georgia-registered carrier Air West Ltd., was leased to carry the cargo by SP Trading Ltd., a New Zealand-registered company with offices in Auckland.

Air West director Nodar Kakabadze said he had no information about SP Trading. “We signed a contract with SP Trading Nov. 4 this year to carry out some flights. That’s it,” Mr. Kakabadze said by phone from the freight company’s base in the Black Sea port city of Batumi, Georgia. “I know nothing more about the company, and we’d never worked with them before.”

A copy of the lease agreement between Air West and SP Trading, obtained by Georgian aviation officials and viewed by The Wall Street Journal, lists a person named Lu Zhang as SP Trading’s director. New Zealand government records indicate SP Trading was incorporated there in July of this year and also list Lu Zhang as its director.

Attempts to locate Lu Zhang and contact SP Trading were unsuccessful Wednesday. A reporter who visited SP Trading’s registered offices — located in a nine-story building across from Auckland’s town hall — was unable to obtain access to the floor listed on the records.

The weapons shipment is among the first detained under new United Nations Security Council rules created in June to curb North Korea’s ability to sell and transport weapons. Security experts believe the country reaps hundreds of millions of dollars a year from arms trading. The latest rules were developed after North Korea tested a nuclear explosive in late May in defiance of previous U.N. sanctions.

Thai government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn said late Wednesday that Thai officials had finished opening the 140 or more crates from the plane’s cargo bay and would release a report within a few days on what they found. Some boxes included surface-to-air missiles and 50 or so tube launchers with computerized weapon-controls. There was no immediate evidence of weapons of mass destruction, he said.

UPDATE 1:  According to the Times of London:

The weapons laden plane seized in Bangkok en route from North Korea at the weekend has been linked to two renowned East European arms traffickers by a respected Swedish think-tank in the latest twist in the mysterious saga.

The Ilyushin-76 aircraft, which was found to be carrying 35 tons of weapons including rockets and grenades, was most recently registered under a company called Beibars, linked to Serbian arms dealer Tomislav Dmanjanovic. It had previously been registered with three companies identified by the US Department of the Treasury as firms controlled by the notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, according to a researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Hugh Griffiths, who monitors air cargo companies involved in arms trafficking for SIPRI, said other past owners of the aircraft had also been documented by the UN as trafficking arms to Liberia, Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Sudan and Chad

“The mystery surrounding this aircraft is solved,” said Mr Griffiths, whose institute is a world leader in tracking the arms trade and analysing military spending. “Now investigators know who to question to find out the ultimate destination of the weapons.”

Viktor Bout is currently in jail in Thailand awaiting extradition to the US on arms dealing charges. Once desribed by Peter Hain, the former Foreign Office minister as a “merchant of death”, he also inspired the film Lord of War, the Nicolas Cage movie about the exploits of an amoral arms dealer in Africa.

The destination of the Bangkok plane remains unknown, but Mr Griffiths told the Associated Press the aircraft had been sold from Beibars to a Georgian company called Air West, illustrating how arms dealers change the ownership of a plane to avoid the law. Despite the changes, the same people keep operating in the background, he said.

“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,” he said.

The plane’s country of registration had been changed to Georgian to get around European union laws which banned all cargo carriers registered in Kazakhsan, where Beibars is registered, he said.

ORIGINAL POST: According to the Wall Street Journal:

Thai officials detained the plane and its five crew members late Friday after they landed at Bangkok’s Don Muang Airport for refueling. Although the final destination of the plane remained unclear, a Thai government spokesman said it was scheduled to land next in Sri Lanka for further refueling and was possibly headed to another location after that.

The detention of the plane and cargo is among the first executions of new rules created by the United Nations Security Council in June to try to halt Pyongyang’s ability to sell and transport arms. The rules were developed after North Korea tested a nuclear explosive in late May in defiance of previous U.N. sanctions.

Since then, international authorities have tracked at least two vessels, including a ship detained in the United Arab Emirates carrying North Korean arms and explosive powder that was headed to nearby Iran. But the size of the latest haul — more than 30 tons — could provide a broader range of information about the variety and quality of weapons North Korea is capable of producing.

Thai government spokesman Panithan Wattanayakorn said Thai authorities had been tracking the plane for several days in conjunction with investigative agencies from “several countries,” though he didn’t name them.

In Washington, Obama administration officials confirmed Sunday that the U.S. worked closely with Thailand on the North Korea operation. Bangkok is among a growing number of U.S. allies that are assisting Washington in tightening the economic screws on Pyongyang, these officials said.

U.S. officials said that senior State Department officials have been traveling throughout North and Southeast Asia in recent months to gain regional governments’ assistance in blocking North Korean arms deliveries. These officials said North Korea has regularly sought to move arms through Myanmar and other Southeast Asian countries to Pyongyang’s traditional buyers, such as Pakistan, Syria and Iran.

The Ilyushin 76 transport plane was registered in Georgia but flew to Bangkok from Pyongyang, Thai officials said. Its cargo — later transferred to a Thai military base — included rocket-propelled grenades, components for surface-to-air missiles, and explosives, according to the Associated Press, which cited Thai officials. There were no immediate indications it included materials or equipment related to the manufacture of nuclear weapons. Thai authorities said it could take several days to examine the plane’s contents.

The crew, including four citizens of Kazakhstan and one from Belarus, were charged with illegal possession of arms in Thailand. A police spokesman said the men had denied any knowledge of weapons on board. They were expected to appear before a Thai judge on Monday.

Local Thai media reported early Monday in Bangkok that crew members said they thought they were transporting oil-rig equipment. The pilot reportedly said the plane picked up its cargo in North Korea and was planning to offload it in Ukraine, the Nation newspaper said on its Web site.

Even before the latest U.N. resolution, Washington had intensified U.S. efforts to cut off Pyongyang’s arms exports under the Bush administration’s Proliferation Security Initiative.

In 2007, for instance, the U.S. worked with Asian allies to block a Syrian cargo plane from landing in North Korea under the assumption the plane was seeking to pick up weapons cargo.

In July 2009, the U.S. worked with the United Arab Emirates to block a North Korean arms shipment from moving to Iran via the Emirati port of Dubai. The U.A.E. impounded the arms cache and is waiting for a U.N. team to visit the Persian Gulf country to watch the destruction of the consignment, said a senior Emirati official.

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November 2008: The United States thwarted a suspect shipment from North Korea to Iran by persuading the Indian government to deny clearance for the North Korean flight to travel through Indian airspace.

South Korea and India have also stopped several North Korean merchant ships in the last year.

If I was running logistics for this operation, I would have refueled in Myanmar instead of Bangkok if at all possible.

Read the full article below:
Officials Probe North Korea Arms Cache
Wall Street Journal
Patrick Barta, Evan Ramstad, Jay Soloman
12/14/2009

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