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Thai seizure of N. Korea weapons could affect nuclear talks

5 arrested and charged with illegal possession

Thai security personnel surrounded a cargo plane that made an emergency landing at Don Muang airport in Bangkok. Thai security personnel surrounded a cargo plane that made an emergency landing at Don Muang airport in Bangkok. (Reuters)
By Apichart Weerawong
Associated Press / December 14, 2009

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BANGKOK - The seizure in Thailand of some 35 tons of war weaponry from North Korea and the arrest of five foreigners charged with illegal possession of arms may prove a blow to efforts by the United States to negotiate a halt to Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions, observers said yesterday.

Thai authorities, reportedly acting on a tip from their American counterparts, impounded an Ilyushin 76 transport plane, carrying explosives, rocket-propelled grenades, and components for surface-to-air missiles during a refueling stop at Bangkok’s Don Muang airport Saturday. Four men from Kazakhstan and one from Belarus were detained.

Thai authorities took the action because of a United Nations resolution banning the transport of certain weapons from or to North Korea, Thailand’s Foreign Ministry said.

The latest sanctions were imposed in June after the reclusive communist regime conducted a nuclear test and test-fired missiles. The sanctions were aimed at derailing North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, but also banned the North’s sale of any conventional arms.

The seizure came just days after President Obama’s special envoy made a rare, three-day trip to North Korea to persuade Pyongyang to rejoin six-nation nuclear disarmament talks. Envoy Stephen Bosworth said the two sides had reached common understandings on the need to restart the talks.

“There is a possibility that the incident could have a negative effect on moves to get the North to rejoin the six-party talks and a US-North Korea dialogue mood,’’ said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at Seoul’s University of North Korean Studies.

Thai Air Force spokesman Captain Montol Suchookorn said the chartered cargo plane originated in North Korea’s capital, Pyongyang, and requested to land at Don Muang airport to refuel.

There were differing local media reports about the plane’s destination, with some saying it was headed to Sri Lanka and others saying Pakistan.

“I cannot disclose the destination of their plane because this involves national security. The government will provide more details on this,’’ Police Colonel Supisarn Pakdinarunart said.

North Korea has been widely accused of violating United Nations sanctions by selling weapons to nations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

Thai Foreign Ministry spokesman Thani Thongphakdi said Thailand made the seizure because of the UN sanctions. “Once further details have been finalized, and all the proper checks have been made we will report all details to the United Nations sanctions committee,’’ he said.

Supisarn said the five men detained denied the arms possession charges and were refused bail. They will appear in court today.