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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
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

Sheridan Maine: Accounts Assistant

£25,000 - £30,000: Sheridan Maine: Are you looking for a fantastic opportunity...

Neil Pavier: Commercial Analyst

£50,000 - £55,000: Neil Pavier: Are you a professionally qualified commercial ...

Loren Hughes: Financial Accountant

£45,000 - £55,000: Loren Hughes: Are you looking for a new opportunity that wi...

Ashdown Group: IT Support Engineer - Professional Services Firm - Oxford

£21000 - £24000 per annum + 21 days holidays: Ashdown Group: Technical Support...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor