Panamanian officials Tuesday sought to unravel the mystery surrounding a rusty North Korean freighter after finding what experts said were parts of an obsolete Soviet-era anti-aircraft missile system hidden beneath sacks of brown sugar in its hold.
Among the unanswered questions: Why would the ship, which has a reputed history of smuggling, be carrying the decades-old hardware to North Korea, its apparent destination and why did the captain attempt suicide and his crew put up a fierce struggle when an armed Panamanian security team boarded the vessel to inspect it? Finally, who tipped the Panamanians off to check the ship?
But Tuesday night the Cuban government broke its silence: The ship had been to Cuba and was carrying “240 metric tons of obsolete defensive weapons.’’ The weaponry, according to a statement from Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Relations, was being sent to North Korea for repairs.
It included two anti-aircraft missile complexes, nine missiles in parts and spares, two MiG-21 jets and 15 motors for MiGs, the ministry said.
But late Tuesday, Panamanians still hadn’t found the entire cache. The freighter, identified as the Chong Chon Gang, was tied up in Manzanillo, a port on the Atlantic Ocean side of the Panama Canal, as crews toiled to clear all of its cargo holds and searched for more contraband. Panamanian inspectors said the process could take up to eight days.
“The world should know that one can’t transit through the Panama Canal with undeclared war materiel,” President Ricardo Martinelli told RPC radio late Monday. “Panama is a peaceful country, not a country of war.”
The 508-foot-long vessel was detained last Wednesday after it arrived from Havana at the entrance of the canal in preparation for transiting to the Pacific Ocean, Security Minister Jose Raul Mulino told Radio Panama on Tuesday.
Panamanian authorities stopped the freighter after receiving intelligence that it was carrying a large quantity of narcotics, he said. Narcotics seizures are commonplace in Panama, which was tops in Central America for drug seizures in 2012.
Patrick Ventrell, a U.S. State Department spokesman, declined to say at a daily briefing Tuesday whether the U.S. had been tracking the ship, shared information with the Panamanians or whether the U.S. was aware of the vessel’s itinerary.
According to a report by Lloyds List Intelligence, the ship departed Russia’s Pacific port of Vostochnny on April 12, bound for Havana, and transited the Panama Canal on June 1. It left Havana last week to pass back through the canal and then back across the Pacific, Lloyds said.
The discovery of the weapons cache comes at a time when the United States and Cuba appear willing to work toward a better relationship and it’s unclear whether the discovery of the weapons cache could put a chill in the relationship.
After a two-year hiatus, talks between the U.S. State Department and Cuban Foreign Ministry officials on thorny immigration issues are scheduled to begin Wednesday.
In June, the two sides held two days of talks on resuming direct mail — a service that has been cut off between the two countries since 1963. U.S. officials said the talks went well and other rounds of discussions are expected to be held.
But Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen called on the State Department to call off the migration talks until Cuba “provides clear and coherent answers” about the discovery of the weaponry.