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Thailand Drops Charges Against Crew of Plane Carrying North Korean Weapons

Thai prosecutors have dropped charges against the crew of a plane carrying North Korean weapons despite United Nations resolutions that bar Pyongyang from selling arms.

The Attorney General's office in Thailand said Thursday it will not prosecute the five-man crew, whose plane stopped in Bangkok with 35 tons of North Korean weapons on board.

Thai authorities say the men - one from Belarus and four from Kazakhstan - will be sent back to their home countries where they will face charges.

The Thai Attorney General's office says the decision was made, at least in part, to maintain good relations with the two countries.

The lawyer for the aircrew says the men believed they were transporting oil drilling equipment.

Ken Boutin, a lecturer in international relations who studies security issues at Australia's Deakin University, says it is possible the men had no idea they were smuggling North Korean weapons.

"It's not unusual in arms transfers of this type for the carriers of the arms to be unaware of what they're carrying. So, in a sense, charging them may have been charging someone who they knew basically to be innocent of any deliberate attempt to violate U.N. sanctions," he said.

The United Nations banned all North Korean arms exports after Pyongyang conducted nuclear and missile tests.

After being tipped-off by foreign intelligence agencies, Thai authorities searched the plane when it stopped in Bangkok to refuel last December. They found heavy weapons, including explosives and rocket-propelled grenades, and detained the crew.

Boutin says the interception is not likely to end North Korea's attempts to sell weapons in violation of the U.N. sanctions.

"Basically it's much more difficult to stop aircraft than it is to stop vessels on the high seas. And, all the North Koreans need to do is make sure they choose different routes," he said. "If they'd flown via Vietnam or Myanmar, probably they would have gotten away with it. And, for them, that's what they can do."

Boutin says Pyongyang tends to sell weapons to authoritarian governments that other countries refuse to sell to because of human rights abuses.

It is not clear where the plane was headed. U.S. officials have said the arms were destined for a country in the Middle East.

The U.S. Embassy in Bangkok had no immediate comment on the decision to release the aircrew.