PANAMA CITY (AP) — Panama has filed charges against the crew of a North Korean ship seized as it tried to pass through the Panama Canal while carrying obsolete weaponry from Cuba hidden under bags of sugar, possibly in violation of U.N. sanctions.
Ramon Lopez, operations director for Panama's National Aeronautics Service, said authorities decided to stop the ship after getting intelligence from the United States and other countries about a suspicious North Korean vessel.
"There was a lot of tension and strong resistance during the inspection," said Lopez, adding that the inspection lasted for three days.
Panama's top prosecutor, Javier Caraballo, said the captain and 35 crew members have been charged with "attempts against Panama's security" and "illegally transporting undeclared military equipment."
The North Korean Foreign Ministry had urged Panama to let the crew go, but Caraballo said late Wednesday that the charges will force the crew to remain while authorities search the ship further. Investigators were still unloading sacks of raw brown Cuban sugar Thursday.
Caraballo said the North Korean sailors could face four to six years in prison if convicted on the "attempts against Panama's security" charge alone.
"According to the ship's manifesto, this boat only had 220,000 quintals of sugar. It never declared the military weapons, and obviously this in itself is a violation of the rules and it puts in grave danger all who transit through the Panama Canal," he said.
The captain and crew members have refused to speak to authorities, Caraballo said.
Caraballo also said shipping the weapons through the canal likely violated U.N. resolutions that ban North Korea from buying and selling missiles and other heavy arms.
Cuba has said it was sending the weapons, including missiles, two jet fighters and radar equipment, for repair in North Korea.
Panama's government announced Wednesday night that visas issued by the Panamanian Embassy in Cuba's capital to two North Korean officials based there were not valid because they were not authorized by prosecutors.
The diplomats had arranged to travel to this Central American country to inspect the ship and give their country's version of events, but authorities said Panama would have to re-issue the visas.