North Korean ship carrying hidden 'missile equipment' detained after leaving Cuba
A North Korean-flagged ship carrying what is believed to be "sophisticated missile equipment" hidden in sugar containers was stopped while returning home from Cuba, Panamanian officials said late Monday.
Speaking to Radio Panama, President Ricardo Martinelli said the captain of the ship tried to kill himself after officials began searching the consignment of sugar.
The vessel—identified by U.K.-based shipping journal Lloyd's List Intelligence as the Chong Chon Gang—was heading for the Panama Canal when it was stopped. It was then taken to the port of Manzanillo to be searched.
"We suspected that it was carrying drugs, and we brought it to port and we started verifying everything that was on the ship," Martinelli said. "We started disembarking the sugar and found some containers that we believe are carrying sophisticated missile equipment."
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He said that the ship was being held while a "more thorough investigation" was carried out.
Martinelli added that officials had taken photographs of the arms—one of which he posted on Twitter—"so that the world knows that you can't transfer nondeclared, warlike material through the Panama Canal."
"The Panama Canal is a canal of peace, not of war," he told the radio station.
Panamanian authorities have detained some 35 crew members, Reuters reported.
The vessel "aroused suspicion by the violent reaction of the captain and the crew from Friday afternoon," Panama Security Minister Jose Raul Mulino told Radio Panama, according to the AFP news agency.
Javier Caraballo, an anti-drugs enforcement official, said, "Until now we have not found drugs in the boat, we found military equipment." He told local television the ship was en route to North Korea, Reuters reported.
Richard Meade, editor of Lloyd's List, described the vessel as a general cargo ship owned by Chongchongang Shipping in Nampo, southwest of Pyongyang, North Korea.The Lloyd's List Intelligence tracks ship movements via satellite, and Meade said its "reporting service has flagged up the fact it was arrested."
He said that he was still checking the Chong Chon Gang's movements, but initial information showed the vessel was in Tianjin, China, on Jan. 25, then Vostochnyy, Russia, on April 12, before arriving in Balboa, Panama, on the Pacific Coast on May 30. He said it passed through the Panama Canal on June 1.
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Meade was unsure where the ship had been between those dates, but he said he was carrying out a more detailed search of the records early Tuesday.
Leading Mexican newspaper El Universal reported that the crew and captain were taken to Fort Sherman, a former American military base now controlled by Panama.
Minister of Security Jose Raul Mulino told the paper that if it was confirmed as a case of weapons smuggling Panama would consult with the United Nations to establish whether the crew should be handed over to an international body.
A spokeswoman for the Panama Canal told Reuters she did not have any more information and referred questions to the attorney general. The attorney general's office did not immediately return requests for comment.
In April, Admiral Sam Locklear told Congress that the U.S. was capable of intercepting a missile launched by North Korea.
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This came after months of heightened tensions because of missile and nuclear bomb tests by the North, during which it threatened to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike against U.S. and South Korean targets.
In October 2012, North Korea claimed that the U.S. mainland was "within the scope" of its missiles.
There are fears that Pyongyang is trying to build a missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead to the mainland United States.
—By Ian Johnston and F. Brinley Bruton, NBC News