By Lomi Kriel, PANAMA CITY (Reuters): Panama detained a North Korean-flagged ship headed to the Panama Canal from Cuba and said Tuesday it was carrying suspected missile equipment hidden under tons of brown sugar, after a standoff in which the ship’s captain tried to commit suicide.
President Ricardo Martinelli said the undeclared weapons were detected when Panamanian authorities stopped the ship, suspecting it was carrying drugs.
“We found containers which presumably contain sophisticated missile equipment. That is not allowed. The Panama canal is a canal of peace, not war,” he told Panamanian radio.
The U.S. State Department on Tuesday praised Panama’s decision to detain and search the ship and said it was ready to help if asked.
It was unclear what the weapons were, but a photo posted on Martinelli’s official Twitter page showed a long, green missile-shaped object with a tapering, conical end inside the ship that security experts said may have been radar equipment or missiles.
Panama’s security minister, Jose Raul Mulino, told Reuters it was still unclear whether the cargo contained missiles.
Mulino said Panamanian authorities have been searching the ship since Wednesday and had so far only discovered two containers of military equipment.
The containers were hidden beneath more than 250,000 100-kilogram (220-pound) bags of sugar, he said.
After Panama began its search, Mulino said the captain became violent, but declined to give more details.
Martinelli went further, saying the captain of the vessel tried to commit suicide after the ship was stopped near the port of Manzanillo on the Atlantic side of the canal.
It was not clear how the captain, who is now receiving medical attention, had tried to kill himself.
The president said the crew resisted efforts by Panamanian authorities to redirect the ship, named Chong Chon Gang, to Manzanillo and that 35 crew members were detained.
IHS Jane, a global analytics firm, said it had identified the equipment shown in the images as an SNR-75 ‘Fan Song’ fire control radar for the SA-2 family of surface-to-air missiles.
“We have not seen any indication of the missile system itself, though it’s entirely possible it’s there,” said Neil Ashdown, an IHS Jane defense analyst.
The radar is designed to detect enemy aircraft, he said.
“If it’s the entire thing, with the missile, that would be in contravention of U.N. sanctions,” Ashdown added.
The ship, bearing a large painted North Korean flag above its rusted deck, measures 155 meters by 20 meters (500 feet by 65 feet) and can carry up to nearly 14,000 tonnes of cargo, according to ship tracking website marinetraffic.com. The ship was built in 1977.
A spokeswoman for the canal said she did not have any more information. The attorney general’s office declined to comment.
Javier Caraballo, Panama’s top anti-drugs prosecutor, told local television the ship was en route to North Korea.
The Chong Chon Gang was tracked leaving Vostochnyy, Russia 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 with a stated destination of Havana, Cuba.
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.
Cuban government officials declined to comment.
U.S. 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, a reclusive and impoverished Asian nation, is under tough sanctions enacted by the United Nations, the United States and the European Union, including a U.N. ban on all arms exports due to its controversial nuclear weapons program.
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 United Nations said.
Sanctions were toughened after the country’s February nuclear test and its vow to continue developing nuclear weapons, saying it fears an attack by the United States.
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.
(Additional reporting by David Alire Garcia, Gabriel Stargardter and Luc Cohen; Writing by Dave Graham; Editing by Doina Chiacu)
Comment here !
KATHMANDU:- A meeting of the Central Security Committee was held on Thursday under the chair of Home Minister Bal Krishna
KATHMANDU:- Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, is arriving on an official visit to Nepal on Monday, May 16. He
KATHMANDU:- All preparations for the May 13 local election have been completed, according to the Election Commission. The EC has
KATHMANDU:- The silence period for the local level election commences from midnight today. The country is going to the local