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Ship leaving Cuba for North Korea held by Panama after 'sophisticated missile equipment’ found aboard

President says items believed to be weapons were found hidden in containers of brown sugar

Panama has seized a North Korean ship carrying a cargo of undeclared “sophisticated missile equipment”, according to the country’s president.

Ricardo Martinelli told local media that the ship had been travelling towards the Panama Canal from Cuba when it was stopped by authorities and searched. Items believed to be weapons were subsequently found on board, hidden in containers of brown sugar.

Mr Martinelli also took to Twitter to share images of the large green objects he says are suspected weapons.

According to the president, the captain of the North Korean vessel attempted to kill himself during the raid, which occurred as part of a routine drugs search on ships approaching the Panama Canal.

Security Minister Jose Raul Mulino said the ship had “aroused suspicion by the violent reaction of the captain and the crew".

After inspectors found the suspected weapons on board, the ship was confined in order for it to be fully unloaded.

Mr Martinelli said: “We're going to keep unloading the ship and figure out exactly what was inside,” adding that the captain and his 35-man crew have been detained.

North Korea is banned from importing or exporting all weapons other than small arms, with UN sanctions strengthened after the country conducted a third unauthorised nuclear test on February 12.

Under the sanctions North Korean ships are routinely searched, with strict measures allowing full inspections for even the slightest suspicion of an illegal cargo.

In July 2009 a North Korean ship heading to Burma was tracked by the US navy on suspicion of carrying weapons, but it turned around and headed back to North Korea before a search could take place.