Thirty-five tons of North Korean weapons, including missiles, rocket-propelled grenades and explosives, have been seized from a Russian transporter plane that stopped to refuel in Bangkok during an apparent arms run to Asia.
The huge cache, uncovered by Thai authorities on a tip-off from the US, was allegedly being shipped illegally to ''a south Asian country'' to help North Korea beat United Nations sanctions on arms trading.
There was a suggestion yesterday from the Thai Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, that the arms may have been bound for terrorist organisations.
''We are not yet clear why they were transporting these weapons … security and intelligence services are continuing to investigate … It is not yet clear if this is terrorist activity,'' he said.
Impoverished North Korea earns more than $US1 billion ($1.09 billion) a year selling weapons, but the UN banned it from moving any arms in or out of the country after it conducted a nuclear test in May.
A Thai Government spokesman said the crates on board the plane held a huge array of functioning arms. ''There seem to be several types of weapons, components and materials: long tubes, shoulder-fired missiles, certain types of rocket-propelled grenades,'' Panitan Wattanayagorn said.
The full payload has been taken to an air force base in Nakhon Sawan province, central Thailand for inspection.
The plane remains under guard at the airport. The five men on board, four Kazakhs and a Belarussian, have been arrested but are reportedly saying little to investigators. Initially, they had said the 12 tightly sealed wood and metal crates on board held oil-drilling equipment.
A police spokesman said Alexandr Zrybnev, Viktor Abdullayev, Vitaliy Shumkov, Ilyas Issakov and Mikhail Petukhou had been charged with ''possession of weapons for war'', which carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. He said they would appear in court today, when police would ask to detain them for a further 12 days.
It is believed the plane was flown empty from Russia and loaded in Pyongyang.
The flight schedule says it was headed for Colombo, Sri Lanka, for its next refuelling stop, but security authorities believe the weapons were ultimately bound for Pakistan or the Middle East.
An Thai Air Force official said that US intelligence agencies had asked Thai authorities to search the plane when it landed. A spokesman for the US embassy in Bangkok denied any knowledge of such a request.
An alleged Russian arms dealer, Viktor Bout, said to be the inspiration for Nicolas Cage's character in Lord of War, is still in prison in Thailand awaiting further court rulings on his extradition to the US on weapons-smuggling charges.
While he has always maintained his innocence, Mr Bout has been described as ''the principal conduit'' for arms moving from Eastern Europe to Africa.
After Pyongyang conducted its latest nuclear test in May this year, a UN resolution obliged countries to ''inspect and destroy'' heavy weaponry headed to or from North Korea. A North Korean freighter suspected of carrying an arms shipment turned around after being tracked by the US Navy for nearly a month.
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