Panama announces an undeclared Cuban weapons cargo found on a North Korean ship is an “undoubted violation” of the UN’ arms embargo on Pyongyang.
A draft report by UN experts sent to Panama after the seizure of the ship in July confirmed a breach of sanctions, the ministry of public security said.
Two North Korean diplomats are in Panama to assist the ship’s 35 crew.
Cuba said it shipped the arms to North Korea for repair. It did not say why they were hidden under tonnes of sugar.
A source in the public security ministry said authorities had been given a first draft of the report compiled by UN sanctions panel experts, the AFP news agency reports.
The ship, the Chong Chon Gang, was seized on suspicion it was carrying drugs.
The vessel had been navigating the Panama Canal.
North Korean ship Chong Chon Gang was seized in Panama on suspicion it was carrying drugs
Officials found 25 containers of military hardware, including two Soviet-era MiG-21 fighter aircraft, air defense systems, missiles and command and control vehicles.
The statement from the Panamanian public security ministry was released after the North Korean diplomats – from the country’s mission in Havana – visited the crew members at a former military base.
They are being detained on suspicion of arms trafficking; an offence which carries a 12-year prison sentence.
The UN inspectors completed their work two weeks ago but are yet to present their official findings publicly.
The Chong Chon Gang left Russia’s far east on April 12 and travelled across the Pacific Ocean before entering the canal at the start of June, with Cuba as its stated destination.
The ship disappeared from satellite tracking systems after it left the Caribbean side of the canal, resurfacing on July 11.
Experts say this may indicate that the crew switched off the system that automatically communicates details of their location.
It was stopped near Manzanillo on the Atlantic side of the canal on July 15.
Under UN sanctions, North Korea is banned from weapons exports and the import of all but small arms.
North Korea has demanded the release of its ship detained in Panama with what appear to be missile radar and other weapons loaded in Cuba.
The communist country says its ship was sailing under a legitimate deal and calling the initial suspicion of drugs on board “a fiction.”
“The Panamanian investigation authorities rashly attacked and detained the captain and crewmen of the ship on the plea of ‘drug investigation’ and searched its cargo but did not discover any drug,” North Korea’s Foreign Ministry spokesman said.
“This cargo is nothing but aging weapons which are to send back to Cuba after overhauling them according to a legitimate contract,” the spokesman was quoted as saying by the official KCNA news agency.
“The Panamanian authorities should take a step to let the apprehended crewmen and ship leave without delay.”
North Korea has demanded the release of its ship detained in Panama
Panamanian authorities seized the North Korean freighter and found what appeared to be components for Soviet-era missile radar system under sacks of brown sugar.
The ship was stopped last week as it headed into the Panama Canal and authorities arrested the crew on Monday after finding undeclared missile-shaped objects, a potential violation of UN sanctions linked to the North’s nuclear and missile programmes.
Panama said on Wednesday that it had asked the UN to determine the legality of the cargo.
Cuba, which has close diplomatic ties with North Korea, said the cargo contained “obsolete defensive weaponry” being sent back to North Korea for repairs and included anti-aircraft missile batteries, disassembled rockets and fighter jet parts.
Security experts said there was a possibility North Korea was trying to import the equipment and the explanation about repairing the items may be a disguise.
Some reports claim the ship appears to have violated U.N. arms embargo on North Korea.
North Korea has been under wide-ranging sanctions under Security Council resolutions since 2006 that ban trade of most types of weapons after conducting missile and nuclear tests in defiance of international condemnation.
It tested a nuclear device for the third time in February that led to the adoption of the latest Security Council resolution that tightened the sanctions regime.
EU foreign ministers have said they will not renew an arms embargo on the Syrian opposition, due to expire on Saturday.
However, there was no immediate decision to send arms to Syrian rebels and all other sanctions remained in force.
Even so, Russia said it would “directly harm” the prospects of an international peace conference on Syria.
The EU declaration on Syria came after 12 hours of talks in Brussels. Foreign ministers were unable to reach the unanimous decision required to extend the current arms embargo, and so agreed to renew the other sanctions – including an assets freeze on President Bashar al-Assad and his aides, and restrictions on trade in oil and financial transactions – without it.
The EU decision will not make much difference on the ground in the immediate future.
Member states can now decide their own policy on sending arms to Syria, but agreed not to “proceed at this stage with the delivery” of equipment.
The EU’s Foreign Affairs Council is to review this position before August 1, in light of fresh developments to end the conflict including the ongoing US-Russia peace initiative.
Britain and France had been pressing for the ability to send weapons to what they call moderate opponents of President Assad, saying it would push Damascus towards a political solution to the two-year conflict.
EU foreign ministers have said they will not renew an arms embargo on the Syrian opposition, due to expire on Saturday
There has been increasing pressure on the international community to act since allegations emerged of chemical weapons being used in the conflict. Syria has denied using chemical weapons.
UK Foreign Secretary William Hague welcomed the outcome of the Brussels talks, saying it was “important for Europe to send a clear signal to the Assad regime that it has to negotiate seriously, and that all options remain on the table if it refuses to do so”.
But other countries had opposed opening the way for weapons to be sent, saying it would only worsen the violence that has already cost at least 80,000 lives.
Austria had been a key opponent of arms being sent.
“The EU should hold the line. We are a peace movement and not a war movement,” Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger said.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov called the EU move “a manifestation of double standards”. Russia and the US are leading efforts to organize a peace conference on Syria next month.
The Syrian opposition has not said whether to attend the conference, and was locked in talks in Istanbul, Turkey, as an unofficial deadline to decide on its attendance passed.
A spokesman for the opposition Syrian National Coalition, Louay Safi, was quoted by news agency AFP as saying that the EU move was “a positive step”, but that the coalition was “afraid it could be too little, too late”.
George Jabboure Netto, a spokesman for the Syrian National Council (SNC), another opposition group, said the dropping of the arms embargo was a “step in the right direction”.
He said the SNC was willing to negotiate an end to the conflict, but only on the condition that there was no place for President Bashar al-Assad in the new Syria.
“We think coupling the arming of [the] Free Syrian Army with diplomatic efforts is a must for any hopes for the diplomatic efforts to succeed.”
The EU embargo, first imposed in May 2011, applies to the rebels as much as the Syrian government.
But in February this year, foreign ministers agreed to enable any EU member state to provide non-lethal military equipment “for the protection of civilians” or for the opposition forces, “which the Union accepts as legitimate representatives of the Syrian people”.