Friday, February 12, 2010

Thailand frees arms cargo crew

Public prosecutors have dropped all charges against the five crewmen of an aircraft seized last December at Don Mueang airport with 35 tonnes of North Korean weapons on board.

The aircraft's pilots, Ilyas Issakov and Vitaliy Shunkov of Kazakhstan, and their crew, Viktor Abdulavey and Alexandr Zrybnev, also of Kazakhstan, along with Mikhail Petukou of Belarus could soon be on their way home - possibly as early as today.

The Office of the Attorney-General decided not to indict the five because they did not intend to use the weapons in Thailand. Consideration was also given to the impact on bilateral relations with Kazakhstan and Belarus.

The two countries have asked through the Foreign Ministry to be allowed to take over the case from Thailand, the OAG said.

"The indictment of the five would affect relations [with Kazakhstan and Belarus] and will not benefit the Kingdom," OAG spokesman Thanapich Moolpreuk said yesterday.

Head of the Criminal Litigation Office Kayasit Pissawanprakan said the case had been difficult. But he stressed the decision to drop the charges was based on the national interest.

The five were released yesterday from Bangkok Remand Prison and were being held at the Immigration Bureau as illegal entrants awaiting deportation.

The next question for Thailand is what to do with the 35 tonnes of missiles and rocket-propelled grenades now being kept at an air force compound in Takhli district of Nakhon Sawan.

Authorities found the weapons on Dec 12 in the Russian-made Ilyushin-76 plane at Don Mueang airport while it was refuelling on its way from North Korea. The plane had landed at the airport the day before. The crew, who claimed they were carrying oil drilling equipment bound for Ukraine, were also arrested on Dec 12.

Although the weapons are under air force control, it is the Crime Suppression Division which is responsible for them.

Acting CSD chief Supisarn Phakdinareunart yesterday said the weapons would be transferred to the Defence Ministry.

Thailand is required under the Criminal Code to keep the weapons for one year after the case is dropped. If nobody claims ownership in that time, they will then belong to the state.

But deputy spokesman for foreign affairs Thani Thongphakdi said UN Security Council Resolution 1874 was clear on what members must do with the North Korean weapons, the export of which is banned. They must be "seized and disposed of"'.

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