Pyongyang has said that Cuban weapons seized from a North Korean vessel were being overhauled as part of a legitimate deal. It claimed that Panamanian authorities who searched the ship and arrested crew had been "rash."
North Korea on Wednesday said that the Cuban weapons systems that were found aboard a Pyongyang-flagged ship did not represent a violation of UN sanctions. There was express criticism of the Panamanian actions.
The North Korean Foreign Ministry reiterated claims by Cuba that the equipment was antiquated and that it was being sent to the isolated Asian country for work to be carried out.
"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 Korea Central News Agency reported the ministry as saying. Some 35 North Korean nationals were arrested after they resisted efforts to intercept the ship in Panamanian waters.
"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," said the statement, adding that the crew should be released.
'To be repaired and returned'
Cuba had described the 240 metric tons of material found on the ship as "obsolete defensive weapons." It was said to include two anti-aircraft missile systems, missiles and missile parts and MiG-21 aircraft parts. Havana said these were "to be repaired and returned to Cuba."
The surface-to-air missile defense system was found on July 11, hidden underneath 240,000 sacks of Cuban brown sugar aboard the 34-year-old freighter Chong Chon Gang. The ship was heading towards the Caribbean entrance of the Panama Canal at the time.
Countries that are members of the UN are banned from selling sophisticated weapons technology to North Korea.
At the UN, diplomats said it seemed likely that sanctions had been broken. British UN Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant said on Wednesday that "any weapons transfers, for whatever reason, to North Korea would be a violation of the sanctions regime and therefore there are questions to be answered."
South Korea welcomed the seizure, calling for the UN to take action "expeditiously" if the shipment did turn out to breach international sanctions.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon praised Panama on Wednesday for seizing the ship, and said that the UN sanctions committee would promptly take up the issue.
rc/hc (AP, AFP, Reuters)