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16 Dec, 2009 10:19

Crew of weapon-loaded Il-76 plane detained in Thai prison

The crew of an Ilyushin-76 airplane loaded with almost 40 tons of weaponry from North Korea has been detained for a further 12 days in a Thai prison pending further investigation.

When questioned, the captain of the crew said that the plane was going from Ukraine and was loaded with weapons in North Korea, Interfax news agency reported. The vessel was then supposed to return to Ukraine.

On Wednesday the aircraft crew were charged with illegal possession of explosives, a felony that is punishable by death in Thailand, the Bangkok Post newspaper reported, quoting a police source. Charges of illegal possession and transportation of firearms carry punishment of life in prison.

The newspaper also wrote that the crew members were put in the same prison as Viktor Bout – a Russian citizen and owner of a transport company, who is currently on trial in Thailand over illegal arms trade. Bout, who was linked to the latest aircraft incident by some media, strongly denied all such allegations “I have not had any relation to the…aircraft. Presenting charges without any papers is an attempt to create a negative image in the public conscientiousness,” Russian news agency RIA Nopvosti quoted Bout as saying.

Authorities seized the Il-76 plane with Kazakh and Belarus crew on board after examining it in Bangkok airport on Sunday. Onboard there were rocket-propelled grenades and parts for surface to air missiles – a violation of the UN ban on any arms sale from North Korea.

Reuters news agency has reported that the aircraft loaded with armaments was impounded after a tip-off from US special services.

The crew from Kazakhstan and Belarus denies the charges of illegal arms possession, saying they believed they were carrying oil-drilling equipment.

According to Ukrainian media, the captain of the aircraft is a Belarus citizen and the rest of the crew have Kazakhstan citizenship. The age of the detained pilots is reported between 53 and 58.

The chairman of Kazakhstan’s governmental aviation committee, Radilbek Adimolda, told a news conference on Monday that all the detained were working for the private Kazakh airline East Wing, but were having time off without pay at the time of the incident. The official said that his agency was investigating the fact that the crew was simultaneously employed by the Georgian airline company Air West Georgia. Adimolda also added that Kazakhstan would undertake all measures for defending the detained and that he personally thought it was possible that the crew did not know what sort of cargo they were carrying.

An official spokesman for Kazakhstan’s Foreign Ministry said on Monday that, while the impounded aircraft belonged to the Georgian airline company, at the time of the incident it was rented by New Zealand’s SP Trading company, and the crew was servicing the plane as provided by uniform international contract.