Panama finds more Cuban weapons on North Korean ship

PANAMA CITY — Panamanian searchers have found more undeclared containers of Cuban weaponry aboard a North Korean freighter but may need up to 10 more days to unload all of the 220,000 bags of sugar that hid the contraband, officials said Thursday.

Authorities said they are also trying to find several hundred empty shipping containers to store the sugar being offloaded from the ship and protect it from Panama’s tropical downpours and oppressive humidity.

President Ricardo Martinelli said more containers have been found aboard the Chong Chon Gang, a North Korean freighter impounded July 15 in the Panamanian port of Manzanillo after it arrived from Cuba and prepared to cross the Panama Canal and sail for home.

Port authorities said four new containers had been found, bringing the total to six, in two stacks of three. They were not declared in the ship’s manifest and were hidden under 220,000 sacks of Cuban brown sugar.

Panamanian police academy cadets offloading the sugar so far have opened only one of the freighter’s four cargo holds, and each hold has six separate sections, according to the port officials, who asked for anonymity because they were not authorized to comment.

The first two containers found were taken off the ship and stored next to each other in an open area under guard by heavily armed troops. A hand-written notice attached to one said they were seized for “commerce and contraband of weapons.”

Foreign technicians with specialized imaging equipment are expected to arrive soon to search every inch of the ship and not just its cargo holds, because the tip that led Panamanian authorities to search the freighter indicated that it was carrying illegal drugs.

Narcotics prosecutor Javier Caraballo said Thursday that he is not discarding the possibility that the ship is carrying drugs. The same freighter was detained in Ukraine several years ago carrying illegal drugs and small arms ammunition.

Cuba has described the equipment as 240 metric tons of “obsolete defensive weapons” sent to North Korea “to be repaired and returned.” It included two MiG-21 jets and 15 motors for them, two anti-aircraft missile systems and nine missiles in parts and spares.

Experts have said that one container carries a targeting radar for Soviet-designed SA-2 anti-aircraft missiles, and that SA-2s are indeed old, first deployed in the early 1960s. But they add that an Iraqi SA-2 downed a U.S. F-15E jet in 1991.

Security Minister Jose Raul Mulino, meanwhile, said the work of unloading the 220,000 sacks of sugar from the 450-foot Chong Chon Gang is an “odyssey” because the 100-pound bags were loaded in Cuba without using pallets.

“The technicians have told us that this cargo was loaded in a way that makes it difficult to unload,” Mulino told reporters, estimating that the work of unloading all the sugar will take another seven to 10 days.

Some access to the cargo areas also was intentionally blocked off in a clear safety violation, said Mulino, a lawyer who specializes in maritime cases. He said the crew’s quarters were filthy and described the rusting freighter as a “pigsty.”

In Washington, State Department spokesperson Marie Harf said the U.S. government did not view the contraband weapons as a bilateral U.S.-Cuba issue bur rather as a potential violation of the U.N. arms embargo slapped on North Korea starting in 2006 for its nuclear weapons program.

Harf added that, nevertheless, U.S. officials will want to talk with Havana “soon” about the shipment and that if it is indeed proven to be a violation of the U.N. sanctions, it would be “incredibly worrisome.”

U.N. Security Council experts, who will officially identify the war material and determine whether it violated U.N. sanctions on North Korea, are not expected to arrive in Panama until Aug. 5.

Adding to the speculation surrounding the shipment, former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe tweeted Thursday that he had received information that the Cuban war materiel was on its way to Ecuador, but gave no further information. He later told Colombian journalists that his source had given him correct information in the past.

Caraballo, meanwhile, told reporters that the freighter’s 35 North Korean crewmen, being held in a detention facility, have refused to speak to investigators. They have been charged with endangering Panama’s security when they resisted the search of their ship.

He also played down reports that the ship’s captain tried to kill himself and suffered a heart attack at the start of the search over the weekend. The captain went into a bathroom and came out with a small cut on his neck, Caraballo said.

North Korea has demanded the return of the ship and its cargo, saying there was nothing illegal about the shipment. and alleging that Panama authorities used violence against the crew. All ships must declare their cargo, and those carrying weapons through the Panama Canal are required to separately report war materiel.

Panama announced Wednesday that it would allow two North Korean diplomats based in Havana to come here to follow the case in person. But it later withdrew the permits, apparently angered by Pyongyang’s complaint of violence against the crew.

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