FAMOUS CRIME STORIES FROM THE PAST
Or is there more to this curious case?
Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said the crew requested permission to land for refueling and then lied to inspectors about the plane’s cargo, saying it was only oil-drilling equipment. “They committed two crimes,” announced the PM. “Firstly they gave false information about their cargo, and secondly that cargo was found to be weapons.”
Government spokesman Panitan Wattanayakorn, who was also the PM’s deputy secretary-general, said the weapons were transferred to Takhli air force base about 240 kilometers north of the capital in central Nakhon Sawan province. Another official said they were moved to the base by trucks amid heavy security on Saturday night. Thai authorities estimated the value of the cargo at around US$18 million.
According to sources, more than 100 weapons experts and other officials went through some 145 crates labelled as drilling equipment at the Nakhon Sawan air force base a few days after the plane landed. Sirisak Tiyapan, head of international affairs at the Office of Attorney-General (OAG), said the cargo included rocket launchers, explosives, ammunition, rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and components for surface-to-air-missiles.
United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution 1874, adopted unanimously by the UNSC on June 12, 2009, specifically bans the transportation of heavy weapons to or from North Korea. The resolution was passed after North Korea conducted an underground nuclear test in May of that year and also test-fired ballistic and other missiles.
News of the weapons seizure spread like wildfire, with Thai and mainstream international media reporting follow-ups for several weeks. However, from the day the news broke a number of Thai officials, diplomats and security experts were expressing skepticism about the operation and its motives. According to them, it just didn’t add up.
Questions were raised almost immediately as to why a plane carrying 35 tonnes of weapons in breach of UN sanctions would stop to refuel in Bangkok when there are much safer regional stopover destinations for arms smugglers, including Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam. The circuitous 24,000km route to the plane’s alleged final destination – Iran – also defied logic. Several diplomats said Iran could easily source the weapons from former Soviet countries rather than deal with the recently sanctioned North Korea.
A few days after the story broke Wayne Madsen, an investigative reporter who specializes in intelligence and security matters, ran a story headlined, “North Korean Arms Transport Plane Part of CIA Sting Operation” on his blog, the Wayne Madsen Report (WMR).
According to the story, “WMR’s Asian intelligence sources strongly suspect that an Ilyushin-76 cargo plane seized in Bangkok on December 12 transporting 40 tons of North Korean weapons was a CIA sting operation designed to obtain, using a ‘front’ airline and regular arms smuggling route, the latest North Korean weaponry available for purchase on the black market.
“The plane’s onward destinations from Bangkok were reportedly Colombo, Sri Lanka and Ukraine. Our sources believe that the CIA knew the plane was planning to pick up weapons in North Korea and may have even chartered the aircraft and arranged a deal to purchase the North Korean weapons through shadowy front companies to both embarrass the North Koreans and discover what was being sold on the global weapons black market.”
The headline of another article written by Simon Montlake and published by The Christian Science Monitor on December 14 asked, “Why did pilots stop for fuel in Thailand?” Under a sub-headline that read, “Suspicions that flight was a set-up,” Montlake wrote, “Observers say it’s unclear why the crew would make multiple refueling stops if they were carrying illicit cargo. Moreover, Thailand has a history of cooperating with the US on high-profile interdictions, making it a risky stopover for a plane carrying 35 tons of North Korean weapons.”
“The fact that the flight refueled at a military-run airport in Bangkok, a hub for US intelligence gathering, suggests a degree of complicity in a seizure that will humiliate North Korea’s leadership,” said Mr Quaglia. “It’s a little bit hard to swallow that they just stopped for gas.”
Here’s an excerpt from yet another skeptical piece by Daniel Michaels and Margaret Coker, “Arms Seized by Thailand Were Iran-Bound,” published by The Wall Street Journal on December 21, “Arms-trafficking specialists have puzzled over the stop in Bangkok, an airport heavily policed because of the drug trade.”
The article quoted Peter Danssaert, an arms-trade researcher at International Peace Information Service (IPIS) based in Belgium, as saying, “This is not an unusual flight plan for general cargo, but if it’s for an arms flight, it doesn’t make any sense.”
IPIS and TransArms, a US-based group that calls itself a research centre for the logistics of arms transfers, raised more questions in a December 2010 report titled “From Deceit to Discovery: The Strange Flight of 4L-AWA” and a later one in October 2013 called: “Ambushed in Bangkok? The UN Panel on North Korea and the case of the IL-76 ‘4L-AWA’.”
During the course of the investigation it came to light that the plane carrying the arms arrived on Friday, December 11, a day earlier than originally reported by Thai authorities. Witnesses said the five-man crew spent a night at a hotel near the airport and were accompanied by what appeared to be Thai security staff.
But according to a senior police officer speaking on condition of anonymity, his department was informed by “the Americans” on December 9 that an IL-76 would arrive at Don Mueang the next day to refuel. The plane did land on Thursday, December 10 and undercover police posing as airport staff searched the plane and found nothing. The plane then refueled and departed, apparently for Pyongyang.
“At this stage, no other Thai security or law enforcement agency had been told about the operation,” said the officer. “This information was known only to some of the most trusted people.” He added that the plane was tracked on radar in Thai air space to verify its movements. The officer also said the IL-76 carrying the arms touched down at Don Mueang at midday on Friday, December 11. “It was boarded by the police, customs, immigration and air force personnel,” he said. “The crew of five men, four Kazakhs and a Belarusian, left the airport with officers and checked in at Ebina House, a three-star hotel located near the airport,” he said.
If the officer is correct it implies that two different IL-76 airplanes landed at Don Mueang on two consecutive days and were searched for arms, or that the first plane for some reason returned to Bangkok to refuel and had taken on a cargo of arms in the meantime.
Two female staff from the hotel confirmed from photos that the five crew members had stayed there on the Friday night. “They arrived late in the afternoon of December 11 accompanied by about 10 Thai men who appeared to be like their bodyguards,” said one woman. “One of the Thai men booked five suites, paying 3,500 baht for each, on the 9th floor. Most of the Thais were wearing civilian clothes and remained in the lobby and around the hotel all night. Some of them sat up all night in the lobby. They departed with the foreigners around 9am the following day. I saw the five foreign men on television and in newspapers later on.”
The crew members were detained on December 12 and brought to Don Mueang police station before being taken to Crime Suppression Division (CSD) headquarters. Pilot Mikhail Petukhou, 54, from Belarus, Alexandr Zrybnev, 53, Viktor Abdukkayev, 58, Vitaliy Shumkov, 54, and Ilyas Issakov, 53, all from Kazakhstan, were arraigned on five charges, including illegal arms possession. If convicted they were facing long jail sentences in Thailand.
An Associated Press investigation traced the IL-76 plane back to a small air freight company in Kazakhstan operated by businessman Alexander Zykov. He denied any involvement with any arms shipment and said the crew members had taken leave shortly before the weapons were seized in Bangkok. AP published a thorough report of its investigation.
When interviewed at Klong Prem Prison, flight navigator Viktor Abdukkayev, refused to answer basic questions about the operation, but insisted he was innocent and should be released. All crew members said they believed that they were delivering oil drilling equipment that was loaded in Pyongyang. “We should be handed over to our countries, not charged and detained in Thailand,” said Mr Abdukkayev. The charges were dropped not long after he was interviewed.
Mr Abdukkayev confirmed that the flight path was from Kiev to Baku, Azerbaijan with a stop at Fujariam airport in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) before landing at Don Mueang on December 10. Abdukkayev said they were supposed to continue to Colombo, Sri Lanka, the UAE and the finally to Kiev, where the cargo was to be delivered.
“I saw the crates on the plane but didn’t open them as they were sealed and accompanied by proper documents identifying them as oil drilling equipment. I am just a navigator. Why should I open the crates?” He asked.
At the time Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout was also at Klong Prem Prison awaiting an appeal decision on extradition to the United States to face charges of arms smuggling to Colombian rebels. He denied media reports linking him to the Russian-built plane.
“How could anyone connect me to the weapons seizure? I have been locked up here for two years, with no telephone or ability to communicate with the outside world,” said Mr Bout when interviewed at the prison. PM Abhisit and Police Colonel Supisarn Bhaddinarinath, acting chief of the CSD, both said there was no evidence to link Bout with the arms seizure.
Mr Abdukkayev said that he talked to Bout in the prison, but claimed he had never heard about him beforehand. Mr Bout didn’t comment when asked he if had spoken with any of the crew.
Three with one blow?
A diplomat stationed in Bangkok who is familiar with military matters said he believed the whole operation was a set-up, which would require co-operation between “several big and powerful countries.”
“Maybe someone intended to kill three mosquitoes in one hit,” said the diplomat. “North Korea, by proving they were in violation of a UN resolution; Iran, to show that they were doing business with North Korea, and maybe connecting it to their nuclear programme; and finally, to stir up the case against Viktor Bout.”
The diplomat said that the claim the plane went to North Korea to buy oil drilling equipment didn’t make sense because it was too far to travel. He added, “Ukraine has a surplus of weapons left by the Soviet Union. They are trying to sell them. Why would they buy more from North Korea?”
A retired Russian intelligence officer agreed with the diplomat’s theory that this was a sting operation with three targets. “The timing was right. It is also possible that the crew members were told to try to get information from Bout when they met in jail.” He said reports that the arms were headed for Iran were “nonsense” and that cheaper and more reliable weapons could be bought from former Soviet states without the need to fly to North Korea and make all the dangerous stopovers.
Crew set free
To the shock of everyone, except perhaps a few security experts, Thai officials announced on February 11, 2010 that charges had been dropped against all five crew members and that they would face charges in their home countries. Thanapich Mulapruk, OAG Special Cases Division director-general, said that prosecuting the men was not in Thailand’s national interests and would negatively affect the existing good relations between Thailand, Belarus and Kazakhstan. The government of Kazakhstan and Belarus had submitted letters through Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs requesting temporary release of the crew to face investigation in their home countries.
The decision to release the crew was based partly on the premise that the men had not officially entered Thailand and only stopped at the airport to refuel. This doesn’t take into account the eyewitness reports that the crew stayed at the Ebina House Hotel on the night of December 11.
The senior police officer expressed outrage when he learned that the crew would likely be freed before the official announcement was made on February 1. He said he wasn’t concerned about “who was behind everything” and that Thai law enforcement agencies had done everything according to the law.
The officer said that by coincidence he had met with a prosecutor involved in the case in his office on December 28, and the prosecutor remarked that he had just been “told by his boss” that a “top government official” had instructed him to drop all charges against the five crew members. When the boss asked what reason should be given to the press, the official said, “Tell them that they will be prosecuted in their home countries.” The official also allegedly said that the request to let the crew go free was made by an “official from a big country” who promised a quid pro quo arrangement.
The prosecutor told the senior police officer that he and some colleagues in the room were “completely stunned” as the evidence against them was very strong. He also expressed doubt that the men would face charges in their home countries. A number of foreign observers expressed the same doubts. In fact there are no reports to be found to indicate the men have been prosecuted at home, meaning this may be yet another mystery in the annals of major crime in Thailand that will never be solved.
The plane was a chartered, Soviet-designed Ilyushin IL-76 cargo plane registered in Georgia as 4L-AWA which landed at Don Mueang Airport in Bangkok carrying 35 tons of weapons. Five crew members were arrested. The cargo in sealed boxes reportedly included RPGs, missile and rocket launchers, missile tubes, surface-to-air-missiles, spare parts, explosives and other war weapons. Over 100 Thai security officials searched the plane performing civilian freight flight number AWG-732, with Sri Lanka and the UAE listed as onward stops on the filled flight plan.
The suspects reportedly told investigators during a six-hour interrogation on Sunday, December 13 at the CSD that they believed they were carrying only oil-drilling equipment. Initially, the crew told the investigators that the plane stopped over at Don Mueang airport on Friday, December 9 on its way to Pyongyang, capital of North Korea.
On Monday, December 14 Bangkok Criminal Court approved a request from Thai authorities to extend the detention of the five suspects by 12 days to conduct further investigation. The men were hit with five charges: possession of illegal weapons and ammunition, smuggling weapons and other banned products and failing to report the cache. If convicted they could have faced up to life imprisonment. They were refused bail despite a reported application for bail filed by the Kazakhstan embassy in Bangkok.
Thai officials said the destination for the arms was unclear, but the pilot of the crew claimed that the shipment was bound for Sri Lanka. This was denied by the Sri Lankan government, which said such items could be acquired legitimately from China.
A flight plan for the IL-76 obtained by researchers in the US and elsewhere shows the plane was scheduled to make refueling stops also in Sri Lanka, UAE and Ukraine before unloading the cargo in Tehran, Iran.