Mystery over origins of seized N Korea plane

Agence France-Presse

Posted at Dec 14 2009 09:18 PM | Updated as of Dec 15 2009 05:18 AM

TBILISI, Georgia - A cargo plane seized in Thailand suspected of smuggling North Korean arms was owned by a Georgian firm but had been leased to a company operating out of either Ukraine or New Zealand, officials said Monday.

Aviation officials in Georgia and Kazakhstan confirmed that the Ilyushin Il-76 had repeatedly changed ownership ahead of its seizure at a Bangkok airport on Friday.

The head of Georgia’s Transport Administration, Giorgi Bokuchava, confirmed to AFP that the aircraft is registered in Georgia and belongs to a company called Air West Georgia.

But he said the four-engine transporter had been leased to a Ukrainian company at the time it was seized.

"Air West Georgia is registered in Batumi, Georgia, but its office is physically located in Ukraine. The airplane in question was leased to the Ukrainian company SP Transporting Limited," he said.

Officials in Kazakhstan said the aircraft had previously been owned by a Kazakh airline before being sold to the Georgian firm two months ago.

"This aircraft was previously in the register of Kazakhstan and was sold to a Georgian airline by our private airline and removed from the state register of Kazakhstan on October 7, 2009," Radilbek Adimolda, the head of Kazakhstan's Civil Aviation Commission told reporters in the capital Astana.

"Until spring of this year it belonged to private Kazakh airline, East Wing. It was then bought by Kazakh airline Beibarys, which in turn in October of this year sold the plane to Georgian airline Air West Georgia".

But adding to the mystery, Kazakh officials said the aircraft had been leased by the Georgian firm to a company operating out of New Zealand with a name similar to one mentioned by Georgian officials.

"According to the information of the Kazakh diplomatic mission in Thailand and competent organs in Kazakhstan, the detained Ilyushin-76 aircraft was... rented to a New Zealand company, SP Trading Limited, to carry out the delivery of cargo," Kazakh Foreign Ministry spokesman Ilyas Omarov told reporters.

The Soviet-era aircraft was seized at Bangkok's Don Mueang airport on Friday during a refuelling stop and was discovered to be carrying 30 tonnes of weapons from North Korea, in violation of UN sanctions against Pyongyang.

Thai police said the crew requested permission to land for refueling in Bangkok and then lied to inspectors about their cargo, saying it was oil-drilling equipment.

Four of the five crew members arrested by Thai police are citizens of Kazakhstan, a former Soviet republic bordering Russia and China. The fifth is a Belarussian pilot.

Adimolda confirmed that four crew members are Kazakh citizens and said that Kazakhstan "will carry out work to defend our citizens."