MEXICO CITY -- Panama said Wednesday that it had slapped disorderly conduct charges on 35 crewmembers of a rusty North Korean freighter carrying “obsolete” military equipment – including apparently two MiG-21 fighter jets – and summoned U.N. experts to ascertain if the shipment violated U.N. resolutions.
In one of the strangest weapons-smuggling cases in years, about 100 police cadets poured through the hold of the North Korean freighter for a third straight day, pulling out some of the 10,000 tons of bagged brown sugar in a search for what Cuba said would be 240 tons of “obsolete” military equipment that it was sending to North Korea for repair.
Panamanian authorities discovered some of equipment on Monday hidden behind the sugar bags when they searched the vessel after receiving a tip it might be carrying illegal drugs. The ship was preparing to cross the Panama Canal on its way to the Pacific Ocean after docking in Havana.
“We’re taking everything out, everything. It’s going to take at least until Sunday, and maybe into next week, to unload that ship,” Panama’s public security minister, Jose Raul Mulino, told McClatchy in a telephone interview.
Mulino said he was mystified by the Cuban government’s assertion in a statement Tuesday that there were two MiG-21 fighter aircraft on board the 508-foot-long Chong Chon Gang. So far, Mulino said, the planes, which would be nearly 50 feet long each and 15 feet tall, have not been uncovered.
“I don’t know how the MiGs would fit in this boat,” he said. “I don’t have the remotest idea how they would load those two MiGs on the ship.”
The vessel is docked at Manzanillo, a port on one side of the Atlantic Ocean entrance to the Panama Canal where it was towed after Panama sought to search it.
U.S. weapons experts arrived in Panama Wednesday, British experts were expected later in the day, and Panama formally asked the U.N. Security Council to send its own experts to identify the Soviet-era equipment, according to Panama’s foreign ministry.
In its statement taking responsibility for the shipment, Cuba emphasized that the military equipment was being sent to North Korea for repairs and was to have been returned to the island. That appeared to be an attempt to sidestep U.N. Security Council Resolution 1817, which bans “the direct or indirect supply, sale or transfer” of all but small weapons to North Korea because of its refusal to halt its nuclear weapons program.
Cuba stressed in its statement that the “obsolete defensive weapons” had all been manufactured in the mid 20th century. It said the equipment included two anti-aircraft missile systems, nine missiles “in parts and spares,” two MiG-21 jets and 15 engines for the MiGs.
Panamanian Foreign Minister Fernando Nunez Fabrega said in a statement that Cuba cannot legitimately argue that the weapons were nonfunctional.
“The Security Council resolution does not speak to whether they are functional or operational. It just says that warplanes may not be transported to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” Nunez Fabrega said, referring to North Korea by its formal name.
New details added to the mystery.
– Hours before President Ricardo Martinelli broke news of the weapons seizure Monday night, Panamanian diplomats met with Cuba’s vice foreign minister, Rogelio Sierra Diaz, who flew to Panama to appeal for the ship’s release. His appeal was rejected.