Cuba admits 'obsolete' weapons were on board North Korean ship seized in Panama

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Crew riots and captain attempts suicide as officials board vessel

Washington

Drug enforcement officials in the Panama Canal found themselves at the centre of an international incident after detaining a North Korean ship coming from Cuba and carrying a hidden cargo of arms.

The boarding of the ship by police set off riots among the crew and the vessel’s captain reportedly tried to commit suicide.

The first details were given by Ricardo Martinelli, the Panamanian president, who said the ship – a cargo carrier named Chong Chon Gang, whose home port is Namp’o close to the North Korean capital Pyongyang – had been stopped as it approached the entrance to the Panama Canal, apparently on its way home.

Instead of drugs however police found military material concealed within a large consignment of sugar, a key Cuban export. A picture posted online by Mr Martinelli showed a tube-shaped object painted green, variously identified by experts as a missile part or radar equipment for missile launches.

The Cuban foreign ministry confirmed last night that the ship had been loaded with "obsolete defensive weaponry" at one of its ports.

Cuba 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 a statement from the foreign ministry, 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."

When Panamanian police boarded the ship, the estimated 35 crew members started to riot and were taken into custody, the president said, while the captain tried to kill himself and subsequently suffered a heart attack. As of last night, there had been no comment from North Korea.

Mr Martinelli told Radio Panama the ship violated United Nations resolutions against arms trafficking. “We suspected this ship … might have drugs aboard so it was brought into port for search and inspection. But when we started to unload the shipment of sugar we found containers we believe to be sophisticated missile equipment, and that is not allowed.”

Weapons analysts at IHS Janes defence consultants identified the equipment as the RSN-75 fire radar fire control system for ground-to-air missiles, known by Nato as “fan song”. “Either this was Cuban equipment that the North Koreans were taking back to upgrade,” an analyst said. “Or equipment they had acquired to improve their own air defences, which are becoming obsolete.” But with only one of the Chong Chon Gang’s five cargo holds searched, other weaponry may be found.

The Soviet-built ship, built in 1977 and with a 14,000 deadweight tonnage, has its own colourful history. Hugh Griffiths, an arms trafficking expert at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, said the vessel had on past occasions been caught trafficking narcotics and small arms ammunition, and been on the institute’s suspect list for some while. In 2010, it was stopped in Ukraine, and in 2009 it had been attacked by pirates 400 miles off the coast of Somalia.

This time, according to President Martinelli, the ship was on its way from Cuba back to North Korea when it was stopped and taken to the cargo distribution centre of Manzanillo, east of the Atlantic entry to the canal. Experts said the sugar could have been payment by Cuba for an upgrade to the radar system.

Cuba is among the few allies of North Korea, one of the most isolated countries on earth. Though Pyongyang is barred by the UN from exporting and importing weapons, arms trafficking has long been one of the regime’s few viable sources of hard currency. It is also said to have provided expertise and equipment to help the nuclear programmes of countries like Pakistan and Syria.

Since the death of Kim Jong-Il in December 2011 and his succession by his son Kim Jong-Un, the country’s behaviour has become even more erratic. In February it carried out a third nuclear test, even threatening to attack the US, and has never concealed its goal of building its own nuclear missile.

Last December, it launched a three-stage rocket which placed a satellite in orbit. The mission was said by the North to have been for peaceful scientific purposes. But Western experts believe it was a covert missile test, banned under UN resolutions. Whether Pyongyang has the technology to build a nuclear warhead for a missile is unclear.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - Junior / Mid Weight

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To support their continued grow...

Recruitment Genius: Marketing Data Specialist

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are the go-to company for ...

Recruitment Genius: Search Marketing Specialist - PPC / SEO

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join the UK's leadin...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This caravan dealership are currently recruiti...

Day In a Page

Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test