World Bulletin/News Desk
When a North Korean ship carrying Cuban arms was seized last week in Panama on suspicion of smuggling drugs, Cuba first said it was loaded with sugar for the people of North Korea, according to a Panamanian official familiar with the matter.
Cuban officials were quick to request the ship be released, pledging there were no drugs on board, and made no mention of the weapons which two days later were found hidden in the hold under 220,000 sacks of brown sugar, the official told Reuters.
"They said it was all a big misunderstanding," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Cuba declined to comment on the official's account.
Questions still surround the cargo of sugar and what Cuba called "obsolete" Soviet-era weapons which it said it was sending halfway around the world to be repaired in North Korea.
The discovery has put the already isolated Asian nation under increased diplomatic pressure because the cargo is suspected of being in breach of a U.N. arms embargo against Pyongyang over its nuclear and ballistic missile program.
For Cuba, the benefits of smuggling out-of-date weapons to North Korea did not seem to make up for the potential pitfalls, experts said.
Panamanian officials say the shipment was probably part of an arms-for-sugar exchange aimed at refurbishing Cuba's aging air defenses.
"We understand it was a barter deal, arms for sugar, that's what our intelligence sources are telling us," said the Panamanian official familiar with the investigation.
While Cuba needs to upgrade its arsenal, Mora and others say, the botched smuggling operation was so clumsy and ill-conceived that it appeared out of character for the usually circumspect and highly disciplined Cuban military.
"It shows that both Cuba and North Korea are quite isolated and are seeking some solace in each other's commercial and diplomatic embraces. They have few alternatives and they don't have any hard cash," said said Bruce Bagley, a Latin America expert at the University of Miami and former consultant to Panama's intelligence service.
A United Nations team is due to arrive in Panama on Aug. 5 to inspect the ship's hold after the sugar has been unloaded.
Pyongyang has asked for the ship and crew to be returned but Panama dismissed the request after the U.S. government strongly backed its decision to seize the vessel.
A Panamanian frigate on routine patrol stopped the 155-meter (510-foot) Chong Chon Gang off the country's Atlantic coast last week after it had left Cuba and was nearing the northern entrance to the Panama Canal, bound for North Korea.
Officers on the frigate noticed the ship was not issuing a transponder signal as required by maritime law, and suspected it was smuggling drugs, according to Panama's Security Ministry.
The ship was boarded after the captain refused to stop. The crew sabotaged the ship's electrical system and the bilge pumps, officials say, in a possible effort to scuttle the ship.
Afterward, the ship's 35 crew members were arrested and charged with attempting to smuggle undeclared arms through the canal. Panama says they have not been cooperating with authorities, choosing to remain silent instead.
Following the vessel's seizure, Cuban officials contacted Panama and made a request on Saturday that it be released and allowed to continue its journey.Güncelleme Tarihi: 20 Temmuz 2013, 10:34