MEXICO CITY -- Panama said Wednesday that it had slapped disorderly conduct charges on 35 crew members of a rusty North Korean freighter carrying “obsolete” military equipment, including apparently two MiG-21 fighter jets, and summoned U.N. experts to ascertain whether 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 of what Cuba said would be 240 tons of “obsolete” military equipment that it was sending to North Korea for repair.
Panamanian authorities discovered some 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, José Raúl Mulino, said in a phone 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 and 15 feet tall each, 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 near the Atlantic Ocean entrance to the Panama Canal where it was towed after Panama sought to search it.
Boarding a vessel before it transits the canal is highly unusual, said Surse Pierpoint, general manager of Colon Import and Export and president of the Association of Users of the Colon Free Trade Zone, a massive commercial center near Manzanillo.
“I don’t remember a similar incident in all the time I’ve worked in Colon,’’ he said. “It certainly makes withdrawing containers more of a hassle because of the security all around the port now.”
U.S. weapons experts arrived in Panama on Wednesday, their British counterparts were expected later in the day, and Panama formally asked the U.N. Security Council to send its own team 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 Núñez Fábrega said in a statement that Cuba cannot legitimately argue that the weapons were nonfunctional.