Panama has charged the crew of a North Korean ship seized while carrying obsolete weaponry from Cuba hidden under bags of sugar.
Panama’s top prosecutor Javier Caraballo said the captain and 35 crew members were charged with attempts against Panama’s security and illegally transporting undeclared military equipment.
The ship was seized as it tried to pass through the Panama Canal and Mr Caraballo said shipping the weapons through the canal probably broke United Nations sanctions that ban North Korea from buying and selling missiles and other heavy arms.
North Korea’s Foreign Ministry had urged Panama to let the crew go, but Mr Caraballo said the charges would force the crew to remain while authorities searched the ship further. Investigators are still unloading sacks of raw brown Cuban sugar.
Mr 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.
The captain and crew members have refused to speak to authorities, Mr Caraballo said.
Cuba has said it was sending the weapons, including missiles, two jet fighters and radar equipment, for repair in North Korea.
The discovery of the weapons aboard the freighter on Monday is expected to trigger an investigation by the UN Security Council committee that monitors sanctions against North Korea. Panamanian officials said UN investigators were on their way to the country.
Ramon Lopez, operations director for the country’s Aeronautics National Service, said authorities decided to stop the ship after getting intelligence from the United States and other countries about a suspicious North Korean ship.
Upon arrival, the captain and 35 crew members started to act aggressively, Mr Lopez said. He said the captain went into a bathroom and came out holding a knife against his neck, threatening to cut himself.
“He made a small wound on his neck,” Mr Lopez said.
A sailor was able to neutralise the captain and then the rest of the crew became restless and agents had to separate them, Mr Lopez said.
“They started yelling and beating on a table, on the ship walls. They were demanding we free them,” he said.
Panamanian president Ricardo Martinelli, who first announced the seizure of the ship, said the captain had tried to commit suicide and had a heart attack.