By Juan Zamorano
COLON, Panama: A Panamanian prosecutor who reported the release of all but three of 35 crewmen of a North Korean ship seized for carrying Cuban weapons reversed his story Wednesday, saying all were still being held.
Organized crime prosecutor Nathaniel Murgas first said only the ship’s captain, first mate and a Korean official who watched the crew would continue to be detained and face charges of arms trafficking. He appeared later in the afternoon at the base where the crew members were being held and changed his version, saying only the ship was legally free to go. He left without further comment.
Other officials involved in the case couldn’t be reached for comment nor could the lawyer for the crew members.
Although the ship is legally free to sail, officials with the independent Panama Canal Zone say the ship cannot move until the North Koreans pay a $1 million fine, which was levied for threatening the canal’s security by not declaring the weapons. Panama says the weapons violated U.N. sanctions restricting arms trading with North Korea.
So far the fine has not been resolved, canal legal adviser Alvaro Cabal said. His brother, Tomas Cabal, an official with the Foreign Ministry, told the Associated Press that one option would be selling the ship’s legal cargo of 10,000 tons of sugar, which is worth about $3 million. The North Koreans have said they want the sugar back.
The ship, Chong Chon Gang, was traveling from Cuba to North Korea when it was seized in the canal July 15 based on intelligence that it might be carrying drugs. Though the manifest listed only the sugar, crews unloading the North Korean-flagged ship found planes, missiles and live munitions on board.
Cuba’s Foreign Ministry acknowledged the military equipment belonged to the Caribbean nation, but said it was being sent to be repaired and then returned to the island. It said the 240 metric tons of weaponry consisted of two Volga and Pechora anti-aircraft missile systems, nine missiles “in parts and spares,” two MiG-21 Bis and 15 engines for those airplanes. It never mentioned the live munitions and has yet to comment about them.
North Korea claimed it had a legitimate contract to overhaul aging weapons to be sent back to Cuba.
Panamanian officials say the ship carried two Cuban fighter jets in perfect condition, contradicting Cuba’s explanation that the cargo included “obsolete defensive weapons.”
A U.N. panel of experts monitoring sanctions against North Korea visited Panama in mid-August to investigate the arms seizure. Panama’s Security Ministry said a preliminary report by the panel determined “without a doubt” that the Cuban weapons violated the restrictions on arms trading with North Korea.