Latin America & Caribbean

N Korean ship seized with Cuban weapons 'free to leave' Panama

Jet engines in the Cuban containers
Soviet-era fighter jet engines were found in the containers

The Panama Canal Authority says a North Korean ship seized seven months ago with undeclared Cuban weapons on board is free to go, after Pyongyang paid a fine of nearly $700,000 (£425,000).

The ship was carrying 25 containers, with Soviet-era weapons and fighter jets hidden under sacks of sugar.

Three crew members, including the captain, will remain in Panama to face weapons trafficking charges.

United Nation sanctions ban any country from providing arms to North Korea.

The Canal Authority initially imposed a fine of nearly $1m - eventually reduced to $693,000 - for breach of navigation regulations.

It says the undeclared cargo endangered Panama's internal security.

"Having received the fine and in strict accordance with its regulations the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) has authorised the departure of the ship," it said in a statement.

Soviet jets

On 30 January, the canal administrators ordered the release, without charge, of 32 of the 35 crew members of the Chong Chon Gang.

The captain, the first officer and the political officer face 12-year sentences for arms smuggling.

The container ship was stopped near Manzanillo, on the Atlantic side of the canal, on 15 July under suspicion that it was carrying drugs.

It had disappeared from satellite tracking for a few days as it approached the Cuban capital, Havana, having departed from Russia's eastern coast three months earlier.

On searching the vessel, officials found military hardware including two Soviet-era MiG-21 fighter aircraft, air defence systems, missiles and command and control vehicles.

Cuban authorities said that the ship was carrying 240 tonnes of "obsolete" defensive weapons.

The North Korean government had called on Panama to release the vessel.

"This cargo is nothing but ageing weapons which are to be sent back to Cuba after overhauling them according to a legitimate contract," the North's foreign ministry was quoted as saying by the state-run Central News Agency.

UN experts sent to Panama to investigate published a preliminary report saying that sanctions against North Korea over its nuclear programme had been violated.

Under UN sanctions, North Korea is banned from weapons exports and the import of all but small arms.

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