Panama Asks for U.N. Help on Weapons Case

PANAMA CITY, Panama (CNN) - Panama has formally asked the United Nations for guidance on how to handle the case of the military weapons it found on a North Korean ship, the country's foreign minister told CNN en Español on Wednesday.

U.N. representatives will travel to Panama to examine the case, which has all the intrigue of a thriller: a violent confrontation on a detained ship, missiles hidden onboard, an apparent heart attack and an attempted suicide.

The weapons were discovered Monday, and as of Wednesday, authorities were still searching the ship.

The ship originated from Cuba, and Cuban officials admitted that the weapons on board were theirs. They described them as "240 metric tons of obsolete defensive weapons" sent to North Korea "to be repaired and returned to Cuba."

The equipment was manufactured in the mid-20th century and included two anti-aircraft missile systems, nine missiles in parts and spares, two MiG-21 jets and 15 motors for this type of airplane, the Cuban foreign ministry said.

Because it is pursuing nuclear weapons, North Korea is banned by the United Nations from importing and exporting most weapons.

Given the international ramifications of the find, Panamanian Foreign Minister Fernando Nunez Fabrega said he had reached out to the United Nations.

The ship's captain, who allegedly suffered a heart attack and then tried to commit suicide as the cargo was being searched, and the 35 North Korean crew members have not been charged, but the attorney general's office said they could face charges of threatening national security.

The crew resisted arrest and engaged in a "violent" confrontation, Panama's security minister, Jose Raul Mulino, said.

Panama's public ministry ordered the crew's detention, and authorities have since spoken with crew members about their travel plans. Crew members said the North Korean ship had left Cuba and headed toward Panama, aiming to arrive back in North Korea in 51 days.

The United States and Panama had been tracking the ship as it crossed the Panama Canal to Cuba and then back, two U.S. officials said.

Cuban state media reported late last month that North Korean army Chief of Staff Gen. Kim Kyok Sik visited the island and had high-level meetings, including one with Cuban leader Raul Castro.


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