As the seizure and inspection of the North Korean vessel Chong Chon Gang last week in the Panama Canal allowed under U.N. sanctions provisions against North Korea made headlines around the world, the Cuban Foreign Ministry issued a statement on the discovery by Panamanian inspectors of military cargo along with a shipment of sugar.
The ministry said Cuba had been informed by Panama about the detention of the vessel in the Panamanian port of Colon and said the vessel "sailed from a Cuban port to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea's official name) mainly loaded with 10,000 tons of sugar.
"In addition, the above mentioned vessel transported 240 metric tons of obsolete defensive weapons -- two anti-aircraft missile complexes Volga and Pechora, nine missiles in parts and spares, two Mig-21 Bis and 15 motors for this type of airplane, all of it manufactured in the mid-twentieth century -- to be repaired and returned to Cuba."
The ministry said the agreements signed by Cuba "are supported by the need to maintain our defensive capacity in order to preserve national sovereignty."
Earlier reports quoted Panamanian authorities as saying the North Korean ship's captain tried to kill himself and crew members resisted arrest after inspectors found suspected weapons system components aboard the vessel.
North Korea is under strict U.N. sanctions for violating its resolutions against conducting nuclear and missile tests and is prohibited from importing or exporting most weapons.
The Cuban Foreign Ministry statement also said it remains committed to "peace, disarmament, including nuclear disarmament, and respect for international law."
U.S. State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell commended the Panamanian government's action, saying Washington "strongly supports Panama's sovereign decision to inspect the DPRK-flagged vessel." He said Panama is a close partner of the United States.
"I will say this is a vessel, as we understand, that the Panamanians inspected because it might be smuggling narcotics, and they utilized their resident domestic authorities to make that inspection," Ventrell said, adding the MV Chong Chon Gang has "a history of involvement in drug smuggling" as cited by a 2012 report by a U.N. panel of experts.
Ventrell also said "if indeed there were a shipment of arms on board of this vessel, any shipment of arms or related materiel" would be in violation of U.N. Security Council Resolutions 1718, 1874 and 2094.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Rosemary DiCarlo was quoted as saying the shipments would be in violation of the Security Council resolutions.
The BBC quoted Panamanian Security Minister Jose Raul Mulino as saying the United Nations would be sending experts for investigation and look into charging the crew with illegal weapons smuggling.
The report said MV Chong Chon Gang had traveled from Russia's Far East in April across the Pacific Ocean before entering the Panama Canal in early June destined for Cuba. The report said the ship crossed the Pacific without turning on its automatic tracking system, raising suspicions.
CNN said the Cuban Foreign Ministry statement came hours after the Panamanian government said it would seek U.S. and British help to find out why the huge amount of military equipment was kept hidden under hundreds of thousands of sacks of brown sugar.
The report said the ministry statement added to the whole mystery that included a violent confrontation aboard the seized ship, missiles hidden onboard and an attempted suicide. It quoted Panamanian Security Minister Mulino as saying the confrontation was violent and the 35-member crew even tried to cut cables on the cranes to be used to unload cargo. Mulino said the crew also refused to raise the ship's anchor, leaving Panamanian authorities no choice but to the cut the anchor to move the ship.
With the Cuban Foreign Ministry statement, Mulino said: "Now we clearly understand the suicidal attitude of the captain, and the rebellion and the rioting of the crew," CNN reported.
Some analysts told CNN the situation may indicate that North Korea could be supplying Cuba with weapons, while noting the geographical proximity of Cuba to the United States.
Defense and security consultant IHS Jane's said in a statement the equipment depicted in photos appeared to be "fire control" radar equipment for surface-to-air missiles.
"One possibility is that Cuba could be sending the system to North Korea for an upgrade," Jane's said. "In this case, it would likely be returned to Cuba and the cargo of sugar could be a payment for the services."
The government in South Korea, whose relations with North Korea have plunged due to various provocations from the Communist country, is closely watching the situation in Panama as the captured North Korean ship may have been carrying missile parts in violation of the U.N. sanctions against arms trafficking, officials said Tuesday.
The Panama Canal incident is the first time North Korea was spotted apparently carrying missile items since the latest round of U.N. sanctions was imposed on it in early March after its third nuclear test in February, Yonhap News reported.
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