December 12, 2009 / 3:04 PM / 10 years ago

Thailand seizes arms on plane from North Korea

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thai authorities seized more than 35 tons of arms from a cargo plane they said had come from North Korea, and arrested its five crew members after the aircraft made an emergency landing at a Bangkok airport.

Thai security personnel surround a cargo plane that made an emergency landing at Don Muang airport in Bangkok December 12, 2009. REUTERS/Stringer

Government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn told Reuters on Saturday the action was taken after the plane landed at Don Muang airport and “suspicious” cargo was found on board.

“We have detained five crew. But we can’t confirm where the plane is heading to. Roughly, the destination is in Asia, probably South Asia, and the plane came from North Asia,” he said.

Monthon Sutchukorn, a deputy spokesman for the Thai air force, said the plane had departed from North Korea but had no further details.

An air force official involved in the inspection, who declined to be named, said the Thai authorities had been asked by the United States to investigate the plane and its cargo.

“We were approached by the United States, seeking our cooperation to examine the suspected plane. It came from North Korea and was heading for somewhere in South Asia, probably Pakistan,” the official told Reuters.

North Korea has been hit with fresh United Nations sanctions to punish it for a nuclear test in May. These are aimed at cutting off its arms sales, a vital export item estimated to earn the destitute state more than $1 billion a year.

The North’s biggest arm sales come from ballistic missiles, with Iran and other Middle Eastern states being customers, according to U.S. government officials.

The Thai authorities did not say what type of weaponry had been found on the plane.

The U.N. sanctions and the cut-off of handouts from South Korea have dealt a heavy blow to the North, which has an estimated GDP of $17 billion, and may force it back into nuclear disarmament talks in the hopes of winning aid, analysts said.

Media reports said the plane had initially sought permission to land at Bangkok’s main Suvarnabhumi international airport but had been diverted to the capital’s second airport, Don Muang.

Local media said four of the crew members were from Kazakhstan and one from Belarus.

Reporting by Panarat Thepgumpanat and Khettiya Jittapong in Bangkok and Jon Herskovitz in Seoul; Writing by Alan Raybould; Editing by Jon Hemming

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