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Panama to liberate most of North Korean ship crew

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JUAN ZAMORANO | November 27, 2013 02:47 PM EST | AP

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PANAMA CITY (AP) — Panamanian prosecutors have cleared the release of most of the crew on a North Korean ship seized in July for carrying Cuban arms hidden beneath a load of sugar, an official said Wednesday.

Only three of the 35 crew members, the captain, first mate and a Korean official who watched the crew, will continue to be detained and face charges of arms trafficking, said organized crime prosecutor Nahaniel Murgas.

"The 32 are being released because they didn't know about the cargo," Murgas said.

He said the ship was legally free to go. But officials with the independent Panama Canal zone say the ship cannot move until the North Koreans pay a $1 million fine, which was levied for threatening the canal's security by not declaring the weapons. So far the fine has not been resolved, said canal legal adviser Alvaro Cabal. His brother, Tomas Cabral, an official with the Foreign Ministry, told the Associated Press that one option would be selling the legal cargo on board — 10,000 tons of sugar — which is worth about $3 million. The North Koreans have said they want the sugar back.

A North Korean delegation arrived last week, one of several in recent months, to negotiate the return of the ship and crew. It was not clear Wednesday exactly when the crew members would leave.

The ship, Chong Chon Gang, was headed from Cuba to North Korea when it was seized in the canal July 15 based on intelligence that it may have been carrying drugs.

Though the manifest only had the sugar, crews unloading the North Korean-flagged ship found planes, missiles and live munitions on board.

Cuba's Foreign Ministry acknowledged that the military equipment belonged to the Caribbean nation, but said it had been shipped out to be repaired and 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.

North Korea claimed it had a legitimate contract to overhaul aging weapons to be sent back to Cuba.

Officials say the ship carried two Cuban fighter jets in perfect condition, contradicting Cuba's explanation that the cargo included "obsolete defensive weapons."

A U.N. panel of experts monitoring sanctions against North Korea visited Panama in mid-August to investigate the arms seizure.

The Panamanian Security Ministry said a preliminary report by the panel determined "without a doubt" that the Cuban weapons violated sanctions restricting weapons trading with North Korea.

U.N. sanctions state that member states shall prevent the direct or indirect supply, sale or transfer of all arms and material to North Korea, and related spare parts, except for small arms and light weapons.

The crew was being been held in a former U.S. military base in Colon, near where the ship was being held.