PANAMA CITY — A North Korean ship carrying weapons system parts buried under sacks of sugar was seized as it tried to cross the Panama Canal on its way from Cuba to its home country, which is barred by U.N. sanctions from importing sophisticated weapons or missiles, Panamanian officials said Tuesday.
A private defense analysis firm that examined a photograph of the find said the ship appeared to be transporting a radar-control system for a Soviet-era surface-to-air missile system, and Cuba later called the equipment on the boat "obsolete defensive weapons" from the mid 20th century.
A statement from Cuba's Foreign Ministry on Tuesday said the military equipment belonged to the Caribbean nation, but said it had been shipped out to be repaired and returned.
Earlier, Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli said the ship identified as the 14,000-ton Chong Chon Gang was carrying missiles and other arms "hidden in containers underneath the cargo of sugar."
Martinelli tweeted a photo showing a green tube that appears to be a horizontal antenna for the SNR-75 "Fan Song" radar, which used to guide missiles fired by the SA-2 air-defense system found in former Warsaw Pact and Soviet-allied nations, said Neil Ashdown, an analyst for IHS Jane's Intelligence.
"It is possible that this could be being sent to North Korea to update its high-altitude air-defense capabilities," Ashdown said. Jane's also said the equipment could be headed to North Korea to be upgraded.
The U.N. Security Council has imposed sanctions against North Korea since its first nuclear test on Oct. 9, 2006. All U.N. member states are prohibited from directly or indirectly supplying, selling or transferring all arms, missiles or missile systems and the equipment and technology to make them to North Korea, with the exception of small arms and light weapons. Countries are authorized to inspect cargo in or transiting through their territory that originated in North Korea, or is destined to North Korea if a state has credible information the cargo could violate Security Council resolutions.
Panamanian authorities believe the ship was returning from Havana on its way to North Korea, Panamanian Public Security Minister Jose Raul Mulino told the Associated Press. Based on unspecified intelligence, authorities suspected it could be carrying contraband.
The 35 North Koreans on the boat were arrested after resisting police efforts to intercept the ship in Panamanian waters on Thursday as it moved toward the canal and take it to the port of Manzanillo, Martinelli told private RPC radio station. The captain claimed he had a heart attack and also tried to commit suicide, Martinelli said. He said Panamanian officials were finally able to board the ship to begin searching it Monday.