BANGKOK - A Thai court on Monday extended the detention of the crew of a seized cargo aircraft loaded with 35 tonnes of arms from North Korea as its unscheduled arrival in Bangkok stirred questions over illicit-weapons trade.
Bangkok Criminal Court approved a police request to extend the detention of four crew members from Kazakhstan and one from Belarus by 12 days, giving authorities more time to investigate the rocket-propelled grenades, surface-to-air missile launchers and other weapons found on board.
They have initially been charged with possession of heavy weapons and misstated details of the cargo, said government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn.
The plane apparently made an emergency landing on Friday en route to other stops in Asia and the Middle East.
The seizure of the cargo is the latest execution of rules imposed in June by the U.N. Security Council to try to stop Communist North Korea from selling weapons in response to its defiant nuclear and missile tests.
In September, South Korean authorities detained four cargo containers belonging to North Korea under the same U.N. resolution following Pyongyang's second nuclear test in May and claims to have made progress in enriching arms-grade uranium.
The crew have denied the charges, saying they thought the plane carried oil-drilling equipment and had no idea they were transporting arms, said police spokesman Pongsapat Pongcharoen.
The haul also included missile tubes, spare parts and other heavy weapons, a military source said.
Panitan said weapon experts would be sent to a military base in Thailand's north where the plane has been relocated to examine still-sealed crates.
We want to keep the cargo away from the public until we know what else might be in it, Panitan said.
MIDDLE EAST DESTINATION
Pongsapat said information from the detained crew suggested the plane was initially scheduled to refuel in Sri Lanka after travelling from North Korea. It was unclear why the crew asked to make an emergency landing in Bangkok to refuel and check a wheel.
Panitan said the plane was going to a destination in the Middle East to unload the weapons. After that, according to the crew, it had planned to refuel in the United Arabs Emirates and Azerbaijan before flying to its final destination in the Ukraine.
But we are taking all of this with a pinch of salt, Panitan said, adding police still did not have information about who the crew members were.
Military and police sources, declining to be identified, said the United States had tipped off Thailand about the plane. Panitan said security forces had acted on intelligence from several countries.
The plane was an Ilyushin IL-76 aircraft, registered in Georgia.
North Korea was hit in June with fresh U.N. sanctions to punish it for the nuclear test in May. These are aimed at cutting off its arms sales, a vital export item estimated to earn the destitute state more than $1 billion (613 million pounds) a year.
The North's biggest arms sales come from ballistic missiles, with Iran and other Middle Eastern states being customers, according to U.S. government officials.
The U.N. sanctions and the cut-off of handouts from South Korea have dealt a heavy blow to the North, which has an estimated GDP of $17 billion, and may force it back into nuclear disarmament talks in the hopes of winning aid.
(Writing by Ambika Ahuja; Editing by Jason Szep and Nick Macfie)