News / Americas

    Panama Freeing Most of North Korean Crew in Smuggled Arms Case

    Panama forensic workers work in a container holding a green missile-shaped object seized from the North Korean flagged ship "Chong Chon Gang" at the Manzanillo Container Terminal in Colon City, July 17, 2013.
    Panama forensic workers work in a container holding a green missile-shaped object seized from the North Korean flagged ship "Chong Chon Gang" at the Manzanillo Container Terminal in Colon City, July 17, 2013.
    Reuters
    Panama is freeing most of the 35 North Korean crew members it detained more than four months ago for smuggling Cuban weapons aboard a ship, a senior government official said on Wednesday.

    Tomas Cabal, head of the anti-terrorism section of Panama's Foreign Ministry, said 32 of the crew of the Chong Chon Gang would be freed and should leave the country by Thursday.

    The three most senior members, including the captain, still face charges of threatening Panama's security by seeking to move undeclared weapons through the Panama Canal.

    The crew's return would end part of a bizarre case involving the three countries that provoked international controversy after the ship was seized in July for smuggling Soviet-era arms, including two MiG-21 aircraft, under 10,000 tons of sugar.

    “The crew members have effectively been freed. They are drawing up the release order and will go to Havana. I understand they must leave by tomorrow,” Cabal said.

    • Panamanian workers stand atop sacks of sugar inside a container aboard a North Korean-flagged ship at the Manzanillo International container terminal on the coast of Colon City, Panama, July 16, 2013.
    • Panamanian workers stand atop sacks of sugar inside a container of a North Korean-flagged ship at the Manzanillo International container terminal, Colon City, Panama, July 16, 2013.
    • A police officer stands guard aboard the North Korean-flagged freighter, Chong Chon Gang, at the Manzanillo International container terminal on the coast of Colon City, Panama, July 17, 2013.
    • A police officer stands guard as investigation officers look inside a container holding military equipment aboard the North Korean-flagged freighter, Chong Chon Gang, at the Manzanillo International container terminal, Colon City, Panama.
    • Antiquated military equipment in two containers aboard the North Korean-flagged freighter Chong Chon Gang, at the Manzanillo International container terminal, Colon City, Panama, July 17, 2013.
    • Military equipment sits secured with wire aboard the North Korean-flagged freighter Chong Chon Gang, at the Manzanillo International container terminal, Colon City, Panama, July 17, 2013.
    • A security officer walks on the deck aboard a North Korean-flagged ship at the Manzanillo International container terminal, Colon City, Panama, July 16, 2013.
    • Military equipment lays in containers aboard a North Korean-flagged ship at the Manzanillo International container terminal, Colon City, Panama, July 16, 2013.
    • A crew member sleeps on a mattress aboard a North Korean-flagged ship at the Manzanillo International container terminal, Colon City, Panama, July 16, 2013.

    Panamanian officials have said the 32 appeared to be ignorant of what was in the cargo.

    It was still unclear what would happen to the ship, because a $1 million fine the Panama Canal Authority imposed on the vessel has not yet been paid.

    The U.N. Security Council has yet to decide on penalties against Cuba because of a 7-year-old ban against arms transfers to North Korea due to the country's nuclear weapons program.

    However, the arms will likely be sold or given away, Panama's Foreign Minister Fernando Nunez Fabrega has said.

    In July, the North Korean crew sabotaged its electrical system and bilge pumps after Panamanian investigators stopped the ship near the Atlantic entrance to the Panama Canal on suspicion it was carrying drugs after leaving Cuba.

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