Cuba’s Foreign Ministry confirmed on Tuesday that a North Korean freighter seized in Panama was loaded with 240 tonnes of Soviet-era weaponry, but claims that the arms were being sent for repairs.
Cuba confirmed on Tuesday evening that a North Korean freighter seized in Panama was loaded with 240 tonnes of “obsolete defensive weaponry,” including rockets, fighter jets and other arms, as well as about 10,000 tonnes of sugar.
The ship was first stopped as it headed into the Panama Canal last Wednesday. Following a tense five-day standoff, authorities arrested the Chong Chon Gang’s 35-member crew on Monday after boarding the ship and discovering undeclared missile-shaped objects – a potential violation of UN sanctions linked to North Korea’s nuclear programme. The raid turned violent as the freighter’s captain attempted to slit his own throat with a knife.
“We found containers which presumably contain sophisticated missile equipment. That is not allowed. The Panama canal is a canal of peace, not war,” Panama’s President Ricardo Martinelli told local radio on Tuesday.
Cuba’s Foreign Ministry said the weapons were being sent back to North Korea for repair and included two anti-aircraft missile batteries, nine disassembled rockets, two MiG-21 fighter jets, and 15 MiG-21 engines, all Soviet-era military weaponry built in the middle of the last century.
In the statement, which was read out on the state TV evening news, Cuba said the weaponry was all required “to maintain our defensive capacity to preserve national sovereignty.” It added, “Cuba maintains its commitment to peace including nuclear disarmament and international law.”
Cuba still has strong ties with North Korea, which include military and economic cooperation.
A high-level North Korean military delegation visited Cuba on July 1, according to official Cuban media reports.
A photo posted on Martinelli’s Twitter page showed a long, green missile-shaped object with a tapering, conical end inside the ship, which he said was bound for North Korea. A security expert said pictures showed radar systems for Vietnam-era, Soviet-made surface-to-air missiles.
The US State Department lauded Panama’s decision to raid the ship, which it said had a history of involvement in drug smuggling, and warned the vessel would be violating United Nations Security Council resolutions by shipping arms. The United Nations has imposed a raft of sanctions on North Korea, including strict regulations on arms shipments, for flouting measures aimed at curbing its nuclear weapons program.
All 35 members of the crew of the ship, which is called Chong Chon Gang, were arrested after resisting Panamanian orders and are now being questioned at Fort Sherman, a former U.S. Army Base on the Atlantic end of the Panama Canal, the official added.
Panama’s security minister, Jose Raul Mulino, said the United Nations would be consulted to determine which agency could charge the crew members for smuggling illegal weapons.
An official at North Korea’s UN mission said nobody was available to comment on the ship.
A US official said the most likely explanation for the cargo was that Cuba was sending missile system parts to North Korea for an upgrade, and sending sugar with them to pay for the work. A security official said Panama had asked US experts to help inspect and identify the weapons.
The weapons seizure drew a stinging response from some US critics of the island’s Communist leadership.
US Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Florida Republican who heads the House subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa, called on President Barack Obama’s administration to cancel migration talks with Cuba this week.
North Korea is under wide-ranging sanctions enacted by the United Nations, the United States and the European Union, including a UN ban on all arms exports, due to its nuclear programme.
“Shipments of arms or related materiel to and from (North) Korea would violate Security Council resolutions, three of them as a matter of fact,” said US Ambassador Rosemary DiCarlo, president of the UN Security Council this month.
“Obviously this shipment, if it’s confirmed to have what we suspect, would be of interest to the (UN North Korea) sanctions committee,” she told reporters in New York.
Previous violations of sanctions included North Korean shipments of arms-related material to Syria in November 2010 and rocket fuses for Iran in 2008.
The ship, built in 1977, was tracked leaving Port Vostochny, in Russia’s far east, on April 12, according to Lloyd’s List Intelligence, a maritime intelligence company. It was next registered arriving in Balboa, on the Panama Canal’s Pacific side, on May 31, and crossed the waterway the next day heading for Havana.
It then disappeared from the tracking system and reappeared in Manzanillo, Panama, on July 11, according to shipping data obtained by research group IHS Maritime. IHS said there were indications it had changed cargo in the interim.
In 2010, the Chong Chon Gang was stopped by Ukrainian authorities who found small-arms ammunition and narcotics aboard the vessel, according to Hugh Griffiths, an arms trafficking expert at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
A year earlier, the ship had stopped in Tartus, Syria, home to a Russian naval base, Griffiths added.
(FRANCE 24 with wires)
Date created : 2013-07-17