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Thai authorities halt shipment of DPRK-made weapons

Thursday, February 11th, 2010

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.

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