BANGKOK (AP) — A Thai court ordered an extended 12-day detention Monday for the crew of a cargo plane loaded with North Korean weapons, as Thailand said it was trying to determine if the aircraft’s destination was in Asia or the Middle East.
The Bangkok Criminal Court accepted a police request to hold the five-man crew in prison pending further investigations in a case that could shed new light on the illicit weapons trade from North Korea. The impoverished nation is widely accused of selling weapons to nations in Africa, Asia and Latin America in violation of U.N. sanctions.
Thai authorities reportedly acted on a tip from their American counterparts when they impounded the Ilyushin IL-76 transport plane Saturday and discovered 35 tons of explosives, rocket-propelled grenades and components for surface-to-air missiles.
Members of the crew — four from Kazakhstan and one from Belarus — were charged Sunday with illegal arms possession. The court on Monday approved an initial request for a 12-day extension, which can be extended up to 84 days, said police spokesman Pongsapat Pongjaren.
Government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn said the aircraft was headed for the Sri Lankan capital Colombo but authorities were investigating if the final destination was in the Middle East, noting the aircraft had recently stopped in the United Arab Emirates.
“We believe after Colombo there may have been another destination,” he said.
On Wednesday the plane was flown from the United Arab Emirates to Bangkok where it landed without any cargo for a refueling stop and continued on to Pyongyang. It left the North Korean capital on Friday and returned to Bangkok for a scheduled refueling before it was due to fly to Sri Lanka, Panitan said.
“We had information that the plane was carrying weapons, and so we sent officers to search,” Panitan said.
The latest U.N. sanctions — which ban North Korea from exporting any arms or weapons — were imposed in June after the reclusive communist regime conducted a nuclear test and test-fired missiles. The sanctions were aimed at derailing North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, but also banned the North’s sale of any conventional arms.
The seizure came just days after President Barack Obama’s special envoy made a rare three-day trip to North Korea on a mission to persuade Pyongyang to rejoin six-nation nuclear disarmament talks. Envoy Stephen Bosworth said the two sides had reached common understandings on the need to restart the talks.
The crew members insist they thought they were carrying oil-drilling equipment and were not aware of any illicit cargo, said defense lawyer Somsak Saithong. The court would decide later in the day whether to grant bail, he added.
“They didn’t know what was in the boxes, they were just transporting them,” the lawyer told reporters. “Their job is to pick up the cargo and go to the destination.”
The flight plan turned over to Thai police says the plane was registered to Air West, a cargo transport company in the former Soviet republic of Georgia and was carrying oil-drilling equipment, said Somsak.
U.S. Embassy spokesman Michael Turner said the embassy would not comment on if Americans had tipped off Thai authorities.
Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban called a Monday meeting of Thailand’s National Security Council to discuss the case. He said it would take several days to obtain details on the incident, which would be reported to the United Nations, Belarus and Kazakhstan.
Thai authorities said the weapons were moved by trucks amid high security Saturday night from the airport to a military base in the nearby province of Nakhon Sawan.
Baek Seung-joo of the state-run Korea Institute for Defense Analyses said the seizure demonstrated a U.S. intention to continue to enforce sanctions on the North while also engaging in dialogue.
Arms sales are a key source of hard currency for the impoverished North. Baek said the North is believed to have earned hundreds of millions of dollars every year by selling missiles, missile parts and other weapons to countries like Iran, Syria and Myanmar.
In August, the United Arab Emirates seized a Bahamas-flagged cargo ship bound for Iran with a cache of banned rocket-propelled grenades and other arms from North Korea, the first seizure since sanctions against North Korea were ramped up.