Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 20 August 2014

Panama charges seized ship's crew

A North Korean-flagged cargo ship at a container terminal in Panama (AP)
Military equipment in containers aboard a North Korean-flagged ship (AP)
Panamanian police officers patrol a deck aboard a North Korean-flagged ship (AP)

The crew of a North Korean ship seized as it tried to pass through the Panama Canal while carrying obsolete weaponry from Cuba hidden under bags of sugar have been charged.

Panama's top prosecutor, Javier Caraballo, said the captain and 35 crew members were charged with attempts against Panama's security and illegally transporting undeclared military equipment.

Mr Caraballo also said shipping the weapons through the canal probably broke United Nations sanctions that ban North Korea from buying and selling missiles and other heavy arms.

North Korea's Foreign Ministry had urged Panama to let the crew go, but Mr Caraballo said the charges would force the crew to remain while authorities searched the ship further. Investigators were still unloading sacks of raw brown Cuban sugar.

Mr Caraballo said the North Korean sailors could face four to six years in prison if convicted on the attempts against Panama's security charge alone. "According to the ship's manifesto, this boat only had 220,000 quintals of sugar. It never declared the military weapons, and obviously this in itself is a violation of the rules and it puts in grave danger all who transit through the Panama Canal," he said.

The captain and crew members have refused to speak to authorities, Mr Caraballo said.

Cuba has said it was sending the weapons, including missiles, two jet fighters and radar equipment, for repair in North Korea.

Panama's government said visas issued by the Panamanian embassy in Cuba's capital to two North Korean officials based there were not valid because they were not authorised by prosecutors.

The diplomats had arranged to travel to the Central American country to inspect the ship and give their country's version of events, but authorities said Panama would have to reissue the visas.

The discovery of the weapons aboard the freighter Chong Chon Gang on Monday is expected to trigger an investigation by the UN Security Council committee that monitors sanctions against North Korea. Panamanian officials said UN investigators are expected in Panama.

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