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Panama finds suspected weapons on N. Korean ship

Wednesday - 7/17/2013, 1:54am  ET

Panamanian workers stand inside a container aboard a North Korean-flagged ship at the Manzanillo International container terminal on the coast of Colon City, Panama, Tuesday, July 16, 2013. The North Korean ship carrying weapons system parts buried under sacks of sugar was seized as it tried to cross the Panama Canal on its way from Cuba to its home country, which is under a United Nations arms embargo, Panamanian officials said Tuesday. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)

JUAN ZAMORANO
Associated Press

PANAMA CITY (AP) -- A North Korean ship carrying weapons system parts buried under sacks of sugar was seized as it tried to cross the Panama Canal on its way from Cuba to its home country, which is barred by United Nations sanctions from importing sophisticated weapons or missiles, Panamanian officials said Tuesday.

A private defense analysis firm that examined a photograph of the find said the ship appeared to be transporting a radar-control system for a Soviet-era surface-to-air missile system, and Cuba later called the equipment on the boat "obsolete defensive weapons" from the mid-20th century.

A statement from Cuba's Foreign Ministry late Tuesday acknowledged that the military equipment belonged to the Caribbean nation, but said it had been shipped out to be repaired and returned to the island.

It said the 240 metric tons of weaponry consisted of two Volga and Pechora anti-aircraft missile systems, nine missiles "in parts and spares," two Mig-21 Bis and 15 engines for those airplanes.

"The agreements subscribed by Cuba in this field are supported by the need to maintain our defensive capacity in order to preserve national sovereignty," the statement read.

It concluded by saying that Havana remains "unwavering" in its commitment to international law, peace and nuclear disarmament.

Earlier, Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli said the ship identified as the 14,000-ton Chong Chon Gang was carrying missiles and other arms "hidden in containers underneath the cargo of sugar."

Martinelli tweeted a photo showing a green tube that appears to be a horizontal antenna for the SNR-75 "Fan Song" radar, which used to guide missiles fired by the SA-2 air-defense system found in former Warsaw Pact and Soviet-allied nations, said Neil Ashdown, an analyst for IHS Jane's Intelligence.

"It is possible that this could be being sent to North Korea to update its high-altitude air-defense capabilities," Ashdown said. Jane's also said the equipment could be headed to North Korea to be upgraded.

Panamanian authorities said one container buried under sugar sacks contained radar equipment that appears to be designed for use with air-to-air or surface-to-air missiles, said Belsio Gonzalez, director of Panama's National Aeronautics and Ocean Administration. An Associated Press journalist who gained access to the rusting ship saw green shipping containers that had been covered by hundreds, perhaps thousands, of white sacks marked "Cuban Raw Sugar."

The U.N. Security Council has imposed four rounds of increasingly tougher sanctions against North Korea since its first nuclear test on Oct. 9, 2006.

Under current sanctions, all U.N. member states are prohibited from directly or indirectly supplying, selling or transferring all arms, missiles or missile systems and the equipment and technology to make them to North Korea, with the exception of small arms and light weapons.

The most recent resolution, approved in March after Pyongyang's latest nuclear test, authorizes all countries to inspect cargo in or transiting through their territory that originated in North Korea, or is destined to North Korea if a state has credible information the cargo could violate Security Council resolutions.

"Panama obviously has an important responsibility to ensure that the Panama Canal is utilized for safe and legal commerce," said Acting U.S. Ambassador Rosemary DiCarlo, who is the current Security Council president. "Shipments of arms or related material to or from Korea would violate Security Council resolutions, three of them as a matter of fact."

Panamanian authorities believe the ship was returning from Havana on its way to North Korea, Panamanian Public Security Minister Jose Raul Mulino told The Associated Press. Based on unspecified intelligence, authorities suspected it could be carrying contraband and tried to communicate with the crew, who didn't respond. Martinelli said Panama originally suspected drugs could be aboard.

The 35 North Koreans on the boat were arrested after resisting police efforts to intercept the ship in Panamanian waters on Thursday as it moved toward the canal and take it to the Caribbean port of Manzanillo, Martinelli told private RPC radio station. The captain had a heart attack and also tried to commit suicide during the operation, Martinelli said.

Panamanian officials were finally able to board the ship to begin searching it Monday, pulling out hundreds of sacks of sugar.

Luis Eduardo Camacho, a spokesman for Martinelli, said authorities had only searched one of the ship's five container sections, and the inspection of all the cargo will take at least a week. Panama has requested help from United Nations inspectors, along with Colombia and the UK, said Javier Carballo, the country's top narcotics prosecutor.

"Panama being a neutral country, a country in peace, that doesn't like war, we feel very worried about this military material," Martinelli said.

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