Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli said Sunday that two MiG-21 fighter jets found inside a North Korean ship that was stopped two weeks ago by customs officers had “apparently” been used because they had fuel in their tanks.
Martinelli’s revelation contradicts versions by North Korea and Cuba, which said that defensive weapons and fighters found on board the ship were “obsolete.” The weapons and the MiG-21s were found inside containers that were supposed to be carrying sugar.
The Panamanian leader, who had been on site as inspectors continued to search the Chongchongang, told the press that “as of now we have found two MiG-21s and antiaircraft missile systems and other equipment.”
From Cuba, the Raúl Castro government issued a statement last week acknowledging the presence of the Soviet-era Volga and Pechora antimissile systems plus “nine missiles in parts and spares, two MiG-21bis and 15 engines for this type of airplane, all of it manufactured in the mid-20th century.” It said that the equipment was going to be “repaired and returned” to the island.
It will be up to the inspectors to decide whether or not it is obsolete"
“Apparently those planes had been in use because they were fueled,” he said.
Panamanian authorities also found some 10,000 tons of sugar in bags.
Public Safety Minister José Raúl Mulino said that regardless of whether they were obsolete the equipment would be considered contraband because it was not declared when the ship entered Panamanian waters on its way back to North Korea.
Panama has asked the UN Security Council – which in 2006 enforced sanctions on North Korea – to step in. As part of the ban, the Pyongyang government is prohibited from importing or exporting weapons because of its ongoing nuclear program.
The Panamanian investigation authorities rashly attacked and detained the captain and crewmen of the ship"
UN inspectors are expected to arrive in Panama on August 5 to determine whether Cuba and North Korea have violated international sanctions.
“We are talking about defense equipment, but it will be up to the inspectors to decide whether or not it is obsolete,” said Panama’s top anti-drug prosecutor José Caraballo. The Chongchongang was suspected initially of carrying drugs but the Martinelli government said it still hadn’t found any traces of narcotics on board.
After Panama announced the discovery of the military equipment on Wednesday, the North Korean Foreign Ministry insisted in a statement that the Panamanian government release the ship and its 35-member crew because no drugs were found nor was it carrying illegal cargo.
“This cargo is nothing but aging weapons that are to [be sent] back to Cuba after overhauling them according to a legitimate contract,” the statement said. “The Panamanian investigation authorities rashly attacked and detained the captain and crewmen of the ship on the plea of a ‘drug investigation’ and searched its cargo but did not discover any drugs. Yet, they are justifying their violent action, taking issue with other kinds of cargo aboard the ship.”
The 35 crew members, all North Korean, are being held at a Panamanian naval base as the investigation continues. A Red Cross committee was expected to meet with them later Monday.
At first Panama agreed to grant diplomatic visas for two North Korean diplomats based in Cuba to meet with the detained crew and inspect the ship, but later canceled the plans by saying that such visas must go through the proper legal channels.