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Panama reverses; North Korean crew not freed

PTI | Last Updated: Thursday, November 28, 2013 - 09:37

Colon: 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, saying all were still being held.

Organised crime prosecutor Nahaniel Murgas first said yesterday 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 USD 1 million fine, which was levied for threatening the canal`s security by not declaring the weapons. Panama says the weapons violated UN 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 USD 3 million. The North Koreans have said they want the sugar back.

The ship, Chong Chon Gang, was travelling 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 to about them.

First Published: Thursday, November 28, 2013 - 09:37
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