LATIN AMERICA

North Korean ship searched in Panama found to be carrying arms

Cuba claims the material is “obsolete” and was to be “repaired and returned”

Foto: Alejandro Bolívar (EFE) / REUTERS-LIVE!Photo: overonaelpais

A North Korean ship that sailed out of Cuba was held up by Panamanian authorities on Saturday on suspicion that it might be carrying drugs. Instead, a two-day inspection at the port of Columbus yielded “defensive weapons” concealed inside containers that were supposed to be carrying 25,000 pounds of brown sugar.

The finding represents a violation of UN sanctions against the North Korean regime. Pyongyang is keeping quiet, but Havana has stated that the “obsolete” armaments belong to Cuba, and were going to be “repaired and returned” to the island.

“They are two antiaircraft missile complexes, Volga and Pechora, nine missiles in parts and spares, two MiG-21bis and 15 motors for this type of airplane, all of it manufactured in the mid-20th century,” reads a Cuban press release.

Now, the government of Panama is waiting for foreign experts to identify the material, although the National Air and Sea Service (Senan) warned that it could be a radar for the detection of ground-to-air missiles, as well as complementary missiles.

The ship’s captain tried to commit suicide when officers removed the sugar

Belsio González, director of Senan, explained that the ship continues to be inspected in search of more “undeclared” weapons. “Until we check the four other holds we cannot confirm that they are carrying containers,” said González, adding that the UN Security Council would be notified.

North Korea has been banned by the international organization from importing or exporting armaments after that country’s last nuclear test on February 12.

Panama’s president, Ricardo Martinelli, was part of the inspection committee on Tuesday. “The world must know that undeclared weapons of war cannot be taken through the Panama Canal,” he said.

Panamanian authorities had received a confidential alert regarding the likelihood that the ship, identified as Chong Chon Gang, might be carrying drugs or illegal substances, said the attorney general.

The ship’s captain tried to commit suicide when law enforcement officers removed the top layer of sugar and discovered the weapons underneath. The crew, which showed itself “reluctant and bellicose” with regard to the inspection, according to the antidrug attorney Javier Caraballo, is being interrogated at a Senan base.

Meanwhile, the government of neighboring Costa Rica stated that the North Korean ship’s passage through Central American waters was “an affront” because the isthmus has mechanisms prohibiting the transit of weapons of mass destruction.

The United States has expressed support for Panama. “We praise the actions taken by the government of Panama in this case and we remain willing to cooperate with them if necessary,” said a spokesman for the State Department.

Hugh Griffiths, an expert in arms trafficking at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, told the Associated Press that this particular vessel had been on a list of suspect ships for years.

On June 30, Cuban President Raúl Castro had received the chief of staff of the North Korean Army, Kim Kyok Sik, who spent three days on the island. “I am visiting Cuba to meet with my trench companions, my Cuban companions,” said General Kim Kyok Sik at the time.

Only Cuba, China, Iran and Syria maintain a close political relationship with North Korea and reject the arms embargo decreed by the United Nations in October 2006.

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