Panama charges North Korea weapons ship's crew

19.07.2013 13:16

Panama has charged the crew of a
North Korean ship detained in Panama
after it was found to be carrying
Prosecutor Javier Caraballo accused the
35 crew members of endangering public
security by illegally transporting war
The charges came just hours after North
Korea urged Panama to release the ship
and its crew without delay.
Police found the weapons under bags of
sugar. Cuba has said it had sent the
weapons to North Korea for repairs.
'Hidden load'
Panama has asked the UN to investigate
whether there has been a breach of the
sanctions against North Korea.
The UN sanctions prohibit the supply of
arms to Pyongyang in the dispute over its
controversial nuclear programme.
"According to its declaration, the ship
only carried 10,000 tonnes sugar, it
never declared war material and that in
itself is a violation of the rules and a
grave danger for the transit through the
Panama canal," Mr Caraballo said.
He said the crew had remained silent
when the charges against them were
They will remain in detention while
Panamanian security forces continue to
unload the cargo under which the
weapons were hidden.
Panama's Security Minister Jose Raul
Mulino said the ship and its cargo had
broken Panamanian and international
"This is not an official or military ship
belonging to the North Korean
"It's a commercial ship which wanted to
pass through the Panama canal with a
[cargo] declaration which failed to
reflect what it was carrying, turning a
blind eye to the fact that its cargo could
be violating UN resolutions," he said.
According to the security minister, the
search could take days.
"This ship was loaded in a way to make it
hard to unload; the effort is enormous,"
he said.
The cargo seized from the North Korean
ship is now guarded by Panamanian soldiers
at the port of Colon City
Forensic teams have begun examining the
contents of the shipping containers seized
on Tuesday.
The ship was carrying what appeared to be
an ageing Soviet-built radar control system
for surface-to-air missiles.
Cuba - which owns this deactivated Soviet-
era medium-range ballistic missile - said it
had sent the weapons to North Korea for
The North Korean-flagged ship is also being
inspected after customs officials found
weapons hidden under sacks of sugar in the
'Obsolete weapons'
On Wednesday, North Korea asked
Panama to release the ship.
"This cargo is nothing but ageing
weapons which are to be sent back to
Cuba after overhauling them according
to a legitimate contract," the North's
foreign ministry was quoted as saying by
the state-run Central News Agency.
Cuba had earlier admitted being behind
the stash of weapons found on board
the ship. It said they were Soviet-era
arms from Cuba headed for repair in
North Korea.
The Cuban foreign ministry said the
Chong Chon Gang was carrying 240
tonnes of "obsolete" defensive weapons -
two anti-aircraft missile complexes, nine
missiles in parts and spares, two
MiG-21bis fighter planes and 15 MiG
Havana also reaffirmed its commitment
to "peace, disarmament, including
nuclear disarmament, and respect for
international law".
The Chong Chon Gang left Russia's far
east on 12 April and travelled across the
Pacific Ocean before entering the canal
at the start of June, with Cuba as its
stated destination.
It was stopped near Manzanillo on the
Atlantic side of the canal last week, but
Panama only released details of the find
on Tuesday.
The ship disappeared from satellite
tracking systems after it left the
Caribbean side of the canal, resurfacing
on 11 July.
Experts say this may indicate that the
crew switched off the system which
automatically communicates details of
their location.
Panama says it is awaiting the arrival of
experts from the United Nations Security
Council to inspect the weapons.