N. Korea weapons smugglers left trail around world
BANGKOK (AP) – Thai authorities’ high-profile inspection of 35 tons of North Korean weapons was nearing completion Friday, as clues emerging around the world shed light on the business of arms trafficking – and the lengths smugglers take to hide their identities.
Two weeks after Thai authorities impounded the aircraft and arrested its five-man crew, the key questions of who organized the shipment and where it was headed remain unanswered.
But a trail of companies and fake addresses from New Zealand to Barcelona has illustrated how the traffickers bounced around the globe to lightly regulated countries to disguise their movements. Over the past few months, they created a complex web of holding companies that facilitated the flight in an apparent effort to evade U.N. sanctions on North Korea.
The Ilyushin Il-76 cargo plane was intercepted during a Dec. 12 refueling stop in Bangkok, thanks to a tip from the United States. Its crew – four from Kazakhstan and one from Belarus – has denied any knowledge of arms aboard the plane, which Thai authorities say included explosives, rocket-propelled grenades and components for surface-to-air missiles.
Pending more investigations, a Thai court Friday ordered the crew members to remain in prison 12 more days.
Police Col. Supisarn Bhaddinarinath, acting chief of the Crime Suppression Division, said in a telephone interview that investigators expect to finish their report on the types of weapons seized “within a week.” The crew has been charged with illegal arms possession, but the charges are expected to be stiffened once the investigation wraps up, he said.
The plane’s chief pilot insisted in an interview published Friday that the aircraft’s final destination was Kiev, Ukraine, though arms trafficking experts published a report last week saying it was bound for Iran. Thai authorities have said there is no evidence to support that assertion.
“We were to fly to Ukraine,” the pilot, Ilyas Isakov of Kazakhstan, told Russian news agencies ITAR-Tass and RIA Novosti in response to written questions. “I don’t know what the cargo owners intended to do next, but we were hired to fly it to Kiev’s Borispil airport.”
He said the crew was hired by a Ukrainian air freighter called Aviatek to pick up 35.8 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.
It was not immediately clear how Aviatek fit into the network of companies linked to the plane’s journey.
A spokesman for the Ukrainian Transport Ministry contacted Friday would not say if a company called Aviatek is in the ministry’s registry. The search engine of the global aviation registry – http://www.aerotransport.org – had no listing for a company by that name.
The aircraft was registered in the former Soviet republic of Georgia but owned by a company in the United Arab Emirates.
It was leased to a company in New Zealand, which then chartered the plane to a company in Hong Kong, according to a report published last week by the nonprofit groups TransArms in the United States and IPIS of Belgium, who obtained flight plans and documents, some of which could not be independently verified. The report was funded by the Belgian government and Amnesty International.
Associated Press reporters around the world found that some of the companies exist only on paper. Some list fake addresses or post office boxes, while at least one firm didn’t exist until a month ago.
The plane was registered to Air West, a cargo transport company set up in September, according to the Georgian transport administration.
Air West’s owner Levan Kakabadze told AP he was unaware of the plane’s final destination. He said he had leased the plane last month to the SP Trading company and could bear no responsibility for what happened next.
SP Trading Limited was founded July 22, 2009, in Auckland, New Zealand, according to a national registry site. In New Zealand, known as an easy place to set up and register new companies, anyone without a criminal record or history of bankruptcy can create a company quickly online for minimal fees.
New Zealand officials are conducting inquiries into the flight “in a number of countries,” James Funnell, a spokesman for New Zealand’s Foreign Ministry, told AP. He said the investigation included New Zealand links to the flight, notably the SP Trading, “one of a number of different companies linked to the plane.”
On Dec. 4, SP Trading leased the plane to Hong Kong-based Union Top Management Ltd., according to the arms trafficking researchers report. The company’s certificate of corporation shows it was created on Nov. 2.
But there is no Union Top office at its Hong Kong address. Instead, there is a company called R & G Management Consultancy, according to a woman who answered the door. She said Union Top is a client but she doesn’t know how to reach anyone at the company, nor did she know a man called Dario Cabreros Garmendia – who signed Union Top’s incorporation in Hong Kong last month.
Garmendia listed Barcelona, Spain, as his address on another document related to the set up of the company. But AP reporters asked four people living next to the location and none had heard of him or the company.
The plane, according to the researchers, was owned by Overseas Cargo FZE, based in Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates where the plane also made a landing. Officials at the company did not respond to repeated requests for comment and the extent of its physical operations in Sharjah was also unclear. It has a post office box in the Sharjah free zone – one of several similar sites around the UAE that permit firms to operate with limited fiscal oversight from local authorities.
In recent years, Sharjah’s international airport has become a hub of many small charter and cargo carriers serving Asia, Africa and the former Soviet republics.
Associated Press writers Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow, Ray Lilley in Wellington, New Zealand, Misha Dzhindzhikhashvili in Tbilisi, Georgia, Min Lee in Hong Kong and Brian Murphy in United Arab Emirates contributed to this report.