The United States says it stands ready to cooperate with Panama, should the Central American nation request assistance regarding a North Korean-flagged ship it stopped while attempting to pass through the Panama Canal with suspected missile parts.
U.S. State Department Spokesman Patrick Ventrell said the United States "strongly supports" Panama's sovereign decision to inspect the vessel.
Panama's president, Ricardo Martinelli, said late Monday authorities stopped the ship on suspicion it was carrying drugs, but instead found what is believed to be "sophisticated missile equipment." Martinelli said the ship was coming from Cuba.
He did not elaborate on the quantity or type of missile parts found, but posted a picture on Twitter showing a green tube-shaped object inside a cargo container of sugar.
Material venia escondido en contenedores bajo un cargamento de azucar pic.twitter.com/x1OqI7SOhX
Martinelli later told Panamanian media the captain of the ship attempted to commit suicide and the 35 crew members were detained with the vessel for further investigation.
Ventrell said the ship has a history of involvement in drug smuggling. He said U.S. authorities are in touch with Panama on the issue and are still gathering information on the exact contents of the ship. He said if the vessel was shipping arms or related material, it would violate numerous U.N., Security Council resolutions.
Communist Cuba is one of few allies of North Korea, which is isolated from much of the international community in part because of its nuclear-weapons and missile programs.
U.N. sanctions forbid North Korea from buying or selling ballistic-missile or nuclear technology. The sanctions were tightened following North Korea's third nuclear test in February.