July 17, 2013
Cuba has admitted being behind a stash of weapons found on board a North Korean ship seized in the Panama Canal.
The Cuban foreign ministry said the ship was carrying obsolete Soviet-era arms from Cuba for repair in North Korea.
The ship was seized by Panama last week after “undeclared military cargo” was found hidden in a shipment of sugar.
United Nations sanctions prohibit the supply of arms to North Korea in the dispute over its nuclear programme.
A Cuban foreign ministry statement said Cuba reaffirmed its commitment to “peace, disarmament, including nuclear disarmament, and respect for international law”.
It said the vessel was carrying 240 tonnes of obsolete defensive weapons – two anti-aircraft missile complexes, nine missiles in parts and spares, two MiG-21bis fighter planes and 15 MiG engines.
The Cuban statement said they were all made in the mid-20th Century and were to be repaired and returned to Cuba.
“The agreements subscribed by Cuba in this field are supported by the need to maintain our defensive capacity in order to preserve national sovereignty,” the statement went on.
Cuba said the ship’s main cargo was 10,000 tonnes of sugar.
The vessel, called Chong Chon Gang, left Russia’s far east on 12 April and travelled across the Pacific Ocean before entering the canal at the start of June, with Cuba as its stated destination.
Panamanian officials said the ship was carrying a cargo of sheet metal on its journey through the canal.
However, the vessel disappeared from satellite tracking systems after it left the Caribbean side of the canal, resurfacing on 11 July.
Experts say this may indicate that the crew switched off the system that automatically communicates details of their location.
Panamanian officials tried to communicate with the vessel, suspecting it could be carrying illegal goods initially thought to be drugs.
The crew did not respond, so the ship was boarded and the weaponry was uncovered.