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Panama seizes North Korean ship for arms transport from Cuba

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A Panamanian presidential security detail walks on the deck of North Korean-flagged ship at the Manzanillo International container terminal in Panama on July 16, 2013.

Panamanian officials have announced detaining a North Korean flagged ship at the Panama Canal, alleging that the vessel, which departed from Cuba, was engaged in arms trafficking.

Panama’s President Ricardo Martinelli said on Tuesday that the ship was carrying “undeclared weapons of war” to North Korea, accusing it of violating UN resolutions prohibiting arms tracking.

Martinelli further stated that the undeclared military cargo appeared to include missiles and non-conventional arms that were found hidden in containers of brown sugar after Panamanian authorities stopped the ship, suspecting that it was transporting drugs, local media reported.

“We’re going to keep unloading the ship and figure out exactly what was inside,” he told the national television in Panama, whose government is closely allied with and heavily influenced by the US.

“You cannot go around shipping undeclared weapons of war through the Panama Canal,” Martinelli added.

He further asserted that 35 North Koreans were on the vessel and resisted police efforts to take the ship to Manzanillo, adding that the eventually were taken into custody.

Martinelli also claimed the captain of the vessel had a heart attack while adding that he tried to commit suicide after his ship was stopped.

Following an initial silence on the case, Cuba announced on Tuesday that the missile parts found in the North Korean cargo ship was part of a stash of aging military equipment in need of repair.

According to Cuba’s Exterior Relations Ministry, the North Korean ship was transporting 240 metric tons of “obsolete defensive armaments” to North Korea for repairs and eventual return to Cuba.

The ministry further added that the vessel was also hauling 10,000 tons of sugar.

Among the military hardware, the ministry statement said, were two antiaircraft missile systems, nine missiles “in parts and pieces,” two MIG-21s and 15 engines for such aircraft.

“The agreements signed by Cuba in this area are based on the need to maintain our defense capability to protect national sovereignty,” the statement also added. “The Republic of Cuba reiterates its firm and irrevocable commitment to peace, disarmament, including nuclear disarmament, and respect for international law.”

However, it remains unclear whether the shipment of the military items would constitutes a violation of the United Nations Security Council resolutions that have targeted North Korea for continuing to develop its nuclear weapons program.

Resolution 1718, passed in 2006, prohibits the solicitation of “services or assistance” from North Korea for a range of military items, including missile systems and combat aircraft, among other things.


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