BANGKOK – A Thai court on Friday ordered the crew of a cargo plane carrying weapons from North Korea to remain in prison for 12 more days, while the pilot refuted reports that the arms were bound for Iran.
Two weeks after the plane was seized, the key questions of who organized the shipment and where it was headed remain unanswered.
In an interview published Friday, the plane's chief pilot insisted the final destination was Kiev, Ukraine, but arms trafficking experts published a report last week saying it was headed to Iran. Thai authorities have said there is no evidence to support that assertion.
The pilot, Ilyas Isakov of Kazakhstan, told Russian news agencies ITAR-Tass and RIA Novosti in response to written questions that the aircraft picked up 35.8 metric tons of cargo in Pyongyang, North Korea — which included 25 tons of oil-drilling equipment and other cargo in sealed wooden boxes. He said the flight path included refueling stops in Bangkok and Sri Lanka.
"We were to fly to Ukraine," Isakov was quoted as saying. "I don't know what the cargo owners intended to do next, but we were hired to fly it to Kiev's Borispil airport."
Defense attorney Somsak Saithong had said earlier this week the five crew members — four from Kazakhstan and one from Belarus — had said their final destination was Sri Lanka. On Friday, he said he was misquoted and meant that Sri Lanka was a stopover before reaching Ukraine.
The crew has said through their lawyer they were not aware that the cargo contained explosives, rocket-propelled grenades and components for surface-to-air missiles, as the Thai government initially reported. Full details of the weapons and where they were manufactured have not been disclosed.
"We need more time to investigate and interrogate," said police Maj. Sompot Khempeth, after the Bangkok Criminal Court accepted a police request to extend the crew's detention an additional 12 days. They can be held up to 84 days.
The crew members have been charged with illegal arms possession. They were not present at court and were to be informed of the ruling via video conference later in the day, Sompot said.
Police Col. Supisarn Bhaddinarinath, acting chief of the Crime Suppression Division, said in a telephone interview investigators expect to finish their report on the types of weapons seized as early as next week. The crew was initially interrogated when they were arrested Dec. 12 and will be questioned again, he said.
Thai authorities, acting on a U.S. tip, impounded the Ilyushin Il-76 cargo plane during its refueling stop in Bangkok. They seized the weapons and transferred them to a Thai military base for inspection.
The Thai government has been investigating the arms cache and says it will send the results to the United Nations.
The U.N. imposed sanctions in June banning North Korea from exporting any arms after the communist regime conducted a nuclear test and test-fired missiles. Impoverished North Korea is believed to earn hundreds of millions of dollars every year by selling missiles, missile parts and other weapons to countries like Iran, Syria and Myanmar.