CUBA

Panama finds more Cuban weapons on North Korean ship

 

jtamayo@ElNuevoHerald.com

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.

Read more Cuba stories from the Miami Herald

  •  
This is the raft on which 16 Cubans sailed from Cuba to Alligator Reef Light off Upper Matecumbe Key this week.

    THE KEYS

    Cuban migrants found suffering from dehydration off the Keys

    Sixteen Cuban migrants were intercepted off the Upper Keys on Wednesday afternoon, and seven of them needed medical attention after suffering from extreme dehydration.

  •  
Sixteen migrants are found crammed in this tiny boat around Alligator Lighthouse, which is about four miles offshore of Islamorada in the FLorida Keys.

    IMMIGRATION

    More than a dozen Cuban migrants rescued at sea in Keys; several taken to hospital

    A small blue homemade boat with a blue-and-white sail was discovered floating near Alligator Reef Lighthouse, about four miles offshore of Islamorada, on Wednesday. Crammed inside the motorless vessel were 16 Cuban migrants lying down, suffering from dehydration, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.

  •  
Elsa Lopez looks at her clothes and shoes she wore when she left Cuba with her parents at the age of two at the time. Her items are among several donated by Exiles on display at the VIP opening and presentation of the The Exile Experience: Journey to Freedom, at the Freedom Tower. The exhibit is a pictorial account of the struggles that the Cuban exile community has endured since Fidel Castro's rise to power, and the successes they have achieved in the United States, organized and curated by the Miami Dade College and The Miami Herald, on Wednesday September 10, 2014.

    MIAMI

    Exhibition chronicles Cuban exiles story

    More than 1,000 people crammed into the Freedom Tower Wednesday night for a peek at an exhibition that honors one of the city’s oldest buildings – and captures the tales of hundreds of thousands of Cubans who fled the island and made Miami their new home.

Miami Herald

Join the
Discussion

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category