PANAMA CITY (AFP) – Cuba has said that weapons found on a North Korean ship close to the Panama Canal are outdated Soviet-era arms, which the communist island had sent to Pyongyang for repair.
The declaration came late Tuesday — a day after Panama said it had discovered military equipment, which it believed to be missiles, after impounding the vessel and conducting a drugs search.
Panama has urged U.N. inspectors to scrutinize the cargo, which could constitute a violation of the strict arms sanctions imposed on North Korea over its nuclear program.
However Cuba, one of North Korea’s few allies, claimed the shipment as its own, with the foreign ministry listing 240 metric tons of “obsolete defensive weapons,” including two anti-aircraft missile systems, as being on board.
There were also “nine missiles in parts and spares,” various Mig-21 aircraft parts and 15 plane motors, “all of it manufactured in the mid-20th century” and “to be repaired and returned to Cuba.”
“The agreements subscribed by Cuba in this field are supported by the need to maintain our defensive capacity in order to preserve national sovereignty,” the ministry said in an English-language statement.
Panama President Ricardo Martinelli tweeted a photo of the haul, which experts earlier Tuesday identified as an aging Soviet-built radar control system for surface-to-air missiles.
Martinelli’s government said the munitions were hidden in a shipment of 220,000 pounds (100,000 kilograms) of bagged sugar aboard the North Korean-flagged Chong Chon Gang.
Panama Security Minister Jose Raul Mulino told RPC radio that the affair is now a matter for United Nations investigators.
South Korea welcomed the seizure.
“If the shipment turns out to be in breach of U.N. resolutions, we expect the U.N. Security Council’s sanctions committee to take relevant steps expeditiously, said a foreign ministry official in Seoul.
The United States also hailed the discovery.