Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman yesterday accused Syria of being behind an attempt to smuggle arms to Hezbollah and Hamas in a North Korean plane that was seized in Thailand in December.

"The military cooperation between Syria and North Korea endangers the stability of both Southeast Asia and the Middle East, and it violates all the accepted rules and norms of the international order," Lieberman said during a visit to Tokyo. He emphasized that this cooperation focused on weapons of mass destruction and surface-to-surface missiles.

While Lieberman's words echo assessments voiced by Israeli defense officials shortly after the plane was seized, this is the first time the claim has been made publicly by a high-level Israeli official.

The plane was seized when it stopped to refuel in Bangkok en route from Pyongyang. Its final destination was apparently Iran, but stops were also planned in Sri Lanka and the United Arab Emirates. The five crew members arrested by the Thai authorities denied all knowledge of the plane's cargo, saying they had been told the sealed containers held oil drilling equipment. They were released without charge in February.

What the Russian-made plane actually contained, however, was 35 tons of weaponry, including antitank missiles, explosives and parts for anti-aircraft missiles. These are items more likely to be sought by a guerrilla army than a conventional one; hence the conclusion that from Iran they were slated to be sent on to Hamas and Hezbollah.

It has been known for some time that much of the weaponry possessed by Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas, especially missiles and rockets, is based on models developed by China or North Korea, and some of it was actually manufactured in North Korea.