Sunday, December 20, 2009

WALL STREET JOURNAL: Seized weapons from North Korea were bound for iIan


A plane loaded with weapons from North Korea that was recently impounded in Bangkok was bound for Iran, according to documents obtained by arms-trafficking experts.

The destination of the Ilyushin-76, which Thai authorities have said carried 35 tons of armaments, has been unknown. Thai officials said the plane flew to Pyongyang via Bangkok two weeks ago to collect its cargo, then returned to Bangkok to refuel on Dec. 11. It was seized during that stop and its five crew members were detained by police.

Thai officials say the plane was due to fly next to Sri Lanka, but Sri Lankan officials say they had no knowledge of the flight.
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A flight plan for the IL-76, obtained by researchers in the U.S. and Belgium, shows that after Bangkok the plane was due to make refueling stops in Sri Lanka, the United Arab Emirates and Ukraine before unloading its cargo in Tehran. Iranian officials didn't respond to requests for comment.

The flight plan also indicates that en route to Pyongyong the plane stopped at an air force base in Azerbaijan, although the nature of that stop is unclear. Azerbaijani officials couldn't be reached for comment.

The new information is presented in a joint draft report by analysts at TransArms, based in Chicago, and the International Peace Information Service, or IPIS, based in Antwerp, Belgium. Both organizations conduct research on conflicts around the world, including how they are financed and supplied with weapons. A draft copy of the report was provided to The Wall Street Journal.

The report hasn't been independently confirmed.

It remains unclear where the weapons would have gone from Iran. Western governments have accused Iran of supporting militants in Lebanon, the Palestinian territories and Iraq. Thai officials have said the weapons found are unusual in Southeast Asia.

Thai officials say they have received little information from the plane's crew, who come from Kazakhstan and Belarus. The crew members say they were told the cargo was oil-drilling equipment. The crew members have denied knowledge that there were weapons on board.

The flight documents obtained by TransArms and IPIS state that the cargo is "oil industry spare parts." The flight's planners appear to have worked hard to maintain appearances. A packing list includes eight categories of equipment, such as "Geothermal rigs spare parts -- model MTEC6" and "Bespoke mineral exploration machine -- spare parts". Each category includes the number of boxes on board, the weight of each box, the gross weight and dimensions in millimeters.

Thai officials have said the actual cargo included shoulder-launched missiles, large rockets, parts for surface-to-air missiles and electronic systems to control weapons.

Arms-trafficking specialists have puzzled over the plane's stop in Bangkok, an airport that is heavily policed because of the drug trade in Thailand. "This is an unusual flight plan for general cargo, but if it's for an arms flight, it doesn't make any sense," said Peter Danssaert, an arms-trade researcher at IPIS involved in preparing the report. He said the flight plan and detailed cargo list suggest the crew may have been unaware of what they were carrying.

A major question that remains unanswered is who organized the weapons shipment, but it appears the planners went to great lengths to hide their identities. The plane is registered in the Republic of Georgia to a Georgian company, Air West Ltd. Air West on Nov. 5 leased it to another company, SP Trading Ltd., according to an Air West manager and a contract seen by The Wall Street Journal. SP Trading is registered in New Zealand and appears to be only a shell company owned by other companies.

In another contract dated Dec. 4, discussed in the report by TransArms and IPIS and seen by the Journal, SP Trading leased the plane to another company, based in Hong Kong. The Hong Kong company is owned by a second Hong Kong company, which is owned in turn by a third company, based in the British Virgin Islands, according to company registration documents. These companies appear to have organized the cargo.

An Air West manager said the company had leased the plane to SP Trading and he knew no more. Officials from SP Trading couldn't be located.

In addition, the Georgian-registered Ilyushin-76 cargo plane is actually owned by a company based in the United Arab Emirates, according to information in the draft report and confirmed by Georgian aviation officials. The company, Overseas Cargo FZE, is based in Sharjah, one of UAE's seven emirates. A spokeswoman for the UAE General Civil Aviation Authority said the agency had no record of the plane being owned by a Sharjah company, although aviation specialists say this isn't unusual.

A U.A.E. official confirmed that the Ilyushin-76 landed in the country on the evening of Dec. 9. The plane refueled and took off just over two hours later with an empty cargo hold, the official said. The plane didn't return to the U.A.E. before it was seized by the Thai authorities, the official said. The stop agrees with the flight plan in the arms-trafficking report.

Overseas Cargo's registration documents, reviewed by The Wall Street Journal in Sharjah, describe it as both an aircraft-leasing and -handling firm as well as an oil-services consulting company. The documents say it has one shareholder, Svetlana Zykova, who lists a permanent address in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

Two women at Overseas Cargo's office in Sharjah referred inquiries to Ms. Zykova. Ms. Zykova was contacted on a U.A.E.-listed mobile phone. The woman who answered identified herself as Svetlana Zykova, confirmed she was the owner of Overseas Cargo, and then hung up when she was asked about her company's connections to the plane seized in Thailand.

If Overseas Cargo or other companies in the UAE are linked to the shipment, it could mark a setback for local officials, who say they have been cracking down on shell companies located in the country's multiple free-trade zones. The crackdown is aimed at hindering the flow of weapons and dual-use technologies to Iran that have been forbidden under United Nations sanctions. Objects that indirectly could aid Iran in building a nuclear weapon, such as state-of-the-art computer equipment, are considered dual-use technologies.

UAE officials have boasted of their tight regulation at the Dubai port, one of the world's largest. Earlier this summer, authorities there seized a shipment of military hardware from North Korea aboard a vessel bound for Iran. The cargo was labeled "oil boring machines" but actually contained detonators and ammunition.

Write to Daniel Michaels at and Margaret Coker at

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