BANGKOK- Thailand will rule next week on whether to try five alleged arms traffickers who flew a sanctions-busting planeload of heavy weapons into the country from North Korea, the Thai premier said Thursday.
The Belarussian pilot and four Kazakh crew were arrested in December and charged by police with possessing illegal weapons and ammunition, smuggling weapons and other banned products and failing to report the cache.
Thai prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva told reporters the attorney general would decide on February 11 whether to pursue the case, when the men's fifth period of detention is due for renewal.
"The two countries (Kazakhstan and Belarus) want legal action to be taken in their own countries. What happens depends on what the attorney general will say on February 11," said Abhisit. Kazakhstan and Belarus have both requested that their nationals be released for trial in their home countries.
Thai foreign minister Kasit Piromya in Geneva this week said the Thai government had "suggested to the office of the attorney general to release them."
But those comments contradicted the government's official position as spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn said the government was "not in a position to intervene" with the court's decision.
"We did not say we would like them to do this or that," Panitan said.
The five men were arrested on December 11 after their Ilyushin-76 plane was impounded in Bangkok with a 35-tonne cargo of weaponry including missiles and rocket-propelled grenades.
The Russian-made plane requested to land at Thailand's domestic Don Mueang airport, where the suspects claimed they were carrying oil drilling equipment bound for Ukraine.
But a flight plan obtained by investigators showed the plane was bound for Iran, while US intelligence chief Dennis Blair said last month that it was headed for an unspecified Middle Eastern destination.
The United Nations banned all North Korean arms exports in a tougher resolution passed in June following the North's latest missile and nuclear tests.
The Bangkok case is believed to be the first airborne arms cargo from Pyongyang to have been seized since then.