North Korea ‘tried to send gas masks to Assad’


North Korea tried to export gas masks to Syria but they were seized in Turkey along with arms and ammunition, Japanese media said Tuesday, as the United States threatened action over an alleged chemical weapons attack.

A Libyan-registered vessel, identified as Al En Ti Sar, left North Korea for Syria earlier this year with the consignment, the Sankei Shimbun said, quoting unnamed sources from the U.S. military, Japanese and South Korean intelligence.

The U.S. military, which obtained the information, was tracking the ship in coordination with other countries, the report said.

The vessel sailed through Dardanelles in Turkey on April 3 and was searched shortly after by Turkish authorities, who had been tipped off by the U.S.

Turkish officials seized 1,400 rifles and pistols and some 30,000 bullets as well as gas masks, apparently for chemical protection, the newspaper report said.

U.S. authorities believe that the ship was intending to unload its cargo in Turkey and send it overland to the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, the report said.

Turkey detained the captain of the vessel and later charged him after he admitted his ship was on its way from North Korea and was carrying arms bound for Syria.

Damascus is the subject of sanctions by the European Union, the U.S. and its allies banning the sale of weapons.

North Korea is barred by United Nations sanctions from trading in weaponry in the wake of nuclear and missile tests. If confirmed, Pyongyang could face additional U.N. sanctions over the shipment.

North Korea and Syria have reportedly had a military relationship for some years, including during the current civil war in the Middle Eastern country.

There were also widespread reports that North Korea helped Syria build a nuclear plant that was destroyed by Israeli bombers in 2007.

The West has ramped up its rhetoric following accounts of a deadly chemical attack outside Damascus on Aug. 21, which it blames on Assad’s regime.