Friday, December 18, 2009

The impounded missile plane

The mystery surrounding the missile-laden plane seized in Bangkok en route from North Korea deepened today as it emerged that the aircraft had links to a company based in New Zealand.

Officials in Georgia, where the plane is registered, told AFP news agency that the aircraft, which was carrying 35 tonnes of missiles and explosives, including rocket propelled grenades, was leased from its owner, Air West, by SP Trading, in Auckland.
The plane’s crew, from Kazakhstan and Belarus, were arrested last Friday after they made an emergency refuelling stop at Bangkok airport. They claimed that the plane was carrying oil drilling equipment but a tip-off from foreign intelligence services prompted a search of the plane that revealed the weapons. The five crew members continue to deny any knowledge of the weapons.

The Georgian director of Air West, Nodar Kakabadze, told AFP that his company had signed a contract with SP Trading on November 4 to “carry out some flights”.

Related Links
• Bangkok arms plane linked to dealers
• Thai police seize North Korean arms aircraft
• Tension as UN hits North Korea with sanctions

He said: “I know nothing more about the company and we’d never worked with them before.”

The Wall Street Journal today reported that the lease agreement between Air West and SP Trading, a copy of which it had seen, listed a Lu Zhang as SP Trading’s director.
New Zealand Companies Office records seen by The Times confirm this and show that SP Trading was registered as a company in July.

A spokeswoman for the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade told The Times: “We are aware of the claims about this company and we are looking into them.”
SP Trading is registered through a company called GT Group Offshore, which has offices in Auckland but appears to be based in Vanuatu. On its website it offers “an extensive range of offshore company services for privacy, legal tax avoidance, asset protection, financial independence and freedom”.

The listed owner of SP Trading is an Auckland-based company called Vican, which, in turn, is owned by GT Group, according to the Companies Office records.

However, attempts to contact the organisation proved fruitless. When The Times rang Ian Taylor, listed as GT Group’s marketing manager, his phone rang out and he did not return messages. An Auckland phone number for Michael Taylor, who completed Lu Zhang’s form applying for directorship of SP Trading is no longer obtainable.

The Auckland number for GT Group no longer works and workers in the office block listed as its address said that they had never heard of the company. A woman who answered the Vanuatu number listed for the group insisted that no one who worked for the company was at that number.

In an email to New Zealand’s National Business Review newspaper, Michael Taylor denied that GT Group had anything to do with SP Trading and claimed that it was incorporated into the group on instruction from a UK-based company, which he did not name.

The founder of GT Group, Geoffrey Taylor, was born in Cleethorpes, South Humberside. According to his website, Mr Taylor is also a director of a corporate services company, Global Fin Net, which offers help on company formations as well as other financial services. Global Fin Net has offices in the UK, as well as Australia, New Zealand and New York. Mr Taylor did not respond to messages from The Times.

The weapons seizure is the largest since tighter UN sanctions were passed in June to curtail North Korea’s lucrative arms trade. It is thought that North Korea earns millions of dollars a year from arms trading and security experts hope that the Thailand case will shed light on how Pyongyang moves weapons around the world.
By Wednesday evening Thai officials had finished opening around 140 crates from the plane. A Thai government spokesman, Panitan Wattanayagorn, said that they would publish a report within a few days detailing what they had found. The weapons haul included surface to air missiles and tube launchers with computerised weapon controls, he said.

There are still no clues about the plane’s destination but Thai officials have said that the plane landed in Bangkok en route to Pyongyang before returning to Bangkok to refuel. Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban admitted that, when tipped off about the plane’s illicit cargo, officials tried to keep the plane out of Thai airspace to “avoid possible complications”.

Thai officials have previously said that the plane was due to fly to Sri Lanka next but Sri Lankan officials have denied knowledge of the flight. Security experts believe that the plane’s final destination was more likely to be the Middle East or Africa.

Earlier this week a respected Swedish think-tank linked the cargo plane, an Ilyushin-76, to two notorious East European arms dealers, the Serbian Tomislav Dmanjanovic and the Russian Viktor Bout, currently in a Thai jail awaiting extradition to the US on arms charges.

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