Panama has seized a North Korean ship on
suspicion it was carrying contraband missile parts from Cuba, which
if confirmed would violate international sanctions, US and
UN officials said Tuesday.
US deputy ambassador to the UN Rosemary DiCarlo appeared to confirm that the ship was carrying contraband, but there has been no official report sent by Panama to the UN, another official said.
"As you know, such shipments of arms or related material ... would violate UN Security Council resolutions," she told reporters. "Obviously this shipment is confirmed to have what we suspected and it would be of interest to the sanctions committee."
Panama President Ricardo Martinelli told Radio Panama Monday that passage of the North Korean-owned Chong Chon Gang through the Panama Canal had been blocked. He said the captain had tried to commit suicide after the ship was detained.
"You cannot go around shipping undeclared weapons of war through the Panama Canal," Martinelli said on Twitter on Tuesday.
Two containers on the ship, traveling from Cuba to North Korea, contained what were believed to be rocket parts.
The North Korean ship, also identified by US officials as the Chong Chon Gang, has a track record of transporting illegal goods. In January 2010, it was stopped in Ukraine, which seized ammunition, narcotic drugs, psychotropic substances and other contraband goods, according to a UN Security Council report in June 2012.
The US government "strongly" supports Panama's sovereign decision to detain the ship, State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said, but he declined comment on US involvement in the situation.
He said any country exporting arms or arms-related material to North Korea "would be in violation" of UN sanctions, adding that Washington was still gathering information about the exact contents.
The State Department avoided answering how the ship incident would affect US-Cuba talks planned for Wednesday on immigration.
US congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said the incident should serve as a "wakeup call" to the Obama administration against continuing its engagement with the Cuban regime.
"I call on the Department of State to immediately cease its migration talks this week with the Cuban regime until it provides clear and coherent answers regarding this incident," she said.
Police in Colon ordered a search of the ship, which was transporting sugar, after they became suspicious that it might be carrying drugs, said Martinelli.
"We began to offload the sugar and we found two containers that apparently contain sophisticated rocket parts," said Martinelli. "The captain tried to commit suicide and the crew became rebellious."
Martinelli said armaments may not pass through the canal without being declared.
"The Panama Canal is a canal of peace, not war," he said.
About 80 kilometres long, the canal is one of the world's most important waterways. Cuba is known to have good relations with North Korea. Both are communist countries.
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