However, one of the aircrew (Mikhail Petukhov, who was the flight engineer) turns out to be an old comrade of Viktor's from his time in the Soviet Air Force's 339th Air Transport Regiment in Vitebsk during the 1980s, as vitebsk.cc reports. Simon Shuster of Time has a good story about the aircrew and specifically Petukhov:
The chief engineer on the flight was Mikhail Petukhov, 54, an out-of-work Belarusian with nearly two decades of experience in the Soviet air force. His wife Vera told TIME by phone from Belarus that the flight was Petukhov's first for a company whose name he never told her. Before that, he had waited more than six months for a job. "That's how it always is," she says. "Only once in a while by chance they'll get a call about some one-off job. And they take what they can get. Once he was gone for three months and came back with only $50; other times it's more. Then he waits around again." She said he had never the other crew members, all Kazakhs, before he left in early December for Kiev, where the flight is believed to have originated.
Sensibly enough, the Thai police have secured the data from the crew's mobile phones. Asia Times gives details of the cargo:
The haul included large numbers of rocket propelled grenades (RPGs), man-portable surface-to-air missiles, and two mobile multiple-rocket launchers, either M-1985 or M-1991's, capable of firing 240mm rockets. The weapons were removed by the Thai military to Takhili Air Force base in central Nakhon Sawan, north of Bangkok. Thai authorities estimated the value of the cargo at around US$18 million. The crew, who are likely to be telling the truth, said they believed they were carrying heavy equipment for oil operations.
The next step is for the weapons to be inventoried and reported to the UN's North Korea Sanctions Committee, which is mandated to investigate violations of the sanctions. Under UN resolutions, the weapons should then be destroyed, although there is some debate in Thailand about whether the weapons will be kept for its armed forces.
Asia Times also says, quoting Kazakh officials, that some of the crew members were on leave from East Wing at the time.
As for the plane, 3D-RTA/TL-ACY has been on United Nations lists of aircraft involved in illegal arms transfers since at least 2001 - the 2001 Expert Panel on Sanctions for Liberia report refers. So does the matching report from 2003.
112. The Panel also examined film footage from August 2002 that showed several hundred M70 assault rifles captured in Tubmanburg. Serial numbers from these also matched the six Belgrade shipments of 2002 (see para. 72 above). The Panel has also obtained film footage of LURD members in Liberia handling nine Strela surface-to-air missiles. LURD claim that these were captured from Liberian-backed dissidents who invaded Guinea in 2000 and they appear to match a sanctions- busting shipment of weapons organized by Sanjivan Ruprah and delivered to Liberia in May 2000 by an Ilyushin-76 (registration TL-ACU) of the now defunct
Centrafrican Airlines run by arms dealer Victor Bout (see S/2001/1015). The Panel has obtained a copy of the shipment order obtained by Belgian Police from Mr. Ruprah when they detained him in 2002. LURD in all probability were given these weapons by Guinean forces after they captured the weapons from the Liberian-backed dissidents during fighting in Guinea in 2000.
The Times and AFP both tackle the question of who chartered the plane. The Times piece is perhaps the most detailed, pointing out that the ostensible charter party was a shell-company in New Zealand, set up by a local company agent, for an owner (with a Chinese name) registered in Vanuatu.
The Wall Street Journal reports, using information from TransArms and IPIS, that the aircraft routed from the Ukraine via Azerjaiban and the UAE to North Korea to load, and then planned to return via Bangkok, Sri Lanka, and the UAE to Tehran. The arms were listed on the manifest as various types of oil drilling equipment. However, it's far from clear how meaningful the flight plan was - as long-term Viktor Bout watcher Peter Danssaert points out, stopping in Bangkok is a strange decision in itself, and they could have refiled en-route at any time. They also shed more light on the consignor - apparently, the Vanuatu company was owned by two companies in Hong Kong eventually controlled by a firm in the British Virgin Islands.
The Jerusalem Post discovers, on the basis of this, that the aircraft was carrying Taepodong-2 ballistic missile parts. Unfortunately, Bloomberg reports that this has been denied by the Thais and the heaviest rocket in the cargo is a tactical multiple-launch rocket system.
AP reports that the crew may well not have been planning to visit Bangkok - they were intercepted by Thai fighters and forced to land there after an intelligence tip-off. Another AFP story confirms the tip off, states that it came from the US, and names "Overseas Cargo FZE", a company based in the...Sharjah Airport Free Zone! where else? as the aircraft's real owner.
Also, meet the Mayor of Careysburg, Liberia.