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Panama orders release of crew of N. Korean ship

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January 30, 2014 02:01 PM EST | AP


PANAMA CITY (AP) — Panama's judicial authorities have ordered the release of 32 of 35 crew members of a North Korean ship detained last July for carrying hidden arms from Cuba and they were working Thursday on paperwork needed to leave.

Prosecutor Nahaniel Murgas said the captain and two other crew members will remain to face arms trafficking charges.

He said a search of the ship turned up documents that showed "that the ship's captain, first officer and political officer had been given instructions about what to do if the illegal shipment was detected. There were certain recommendations."

"Together with that were the statements by the rest of the crew, who said they were employees on the vessel, but not responsible" for the shipment, he said. "It was based on that the decided to free the other 32."

The Chong Chon Gang was carrying Cuban fighter jets and missiles. The owners agreed to pay a $670,000 fine this month to release the ship.

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

The Cuban military equipment was found beneath sacks of sugar. Panama has not released the 10,000 tons of sugar or the arms.

After the seizure, Cuba said the cargo included "obsolete defensive weapons" including two MiG-21 fighter jets and 15 motors, nine missiles in parts, and two anti-aircraft systems that were being shipped to North Korea "to be repaired and returned."

A preliminary report by U.N. experts determined that the seized ship violated U.N. sanctions against North Korea.