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Cuba claims weapons found on board North Korean ship in Panama

Cuba has claimed it is the owner of the weapons found on board a North Korean ship that was seized by Panama. Cuba said the "obsolete" missile system parts were being sent to North Korea for repair.

A North Korean cargo ship seized in Panama on Monday was loaded at one of its ports with 240 tons of "obsolete defensive weaponry," according to a statement released by the Cuban Foreign Ministry on Tuesday.

Havana said the weapons, which were inconspicuously buried under 10,000 tons of sugar, were being sent back to North Korea for repair. The weapons included two anti-aircraft batteries, nine disassembled rockets, and two MiG-21 aircraft - all of which is Soviet-era military weaponry.

North Korea is barred by United Nations sanctions from importing sophisticated weapons or missiles.

Bizarre scene in Panama

Panamanian authorities boarded the ship near the port of Manzanillo, which lies on the Atlantic side of the 77-killometer canal (48 miles), to conduct a drug search, according to Panama President Ricardo Martinelli. The subsequent discovery of the weapons reportedly unleashed a dramatic scene among the crew members.

"We began to offload the sugar and we found two containers that apparently contain sophisticated rocket parts," President Martinelli told Panama Radio on Tuesday.

"The captain tried to commit suicide and the crew became rebellious," he added. It was not immediately clear where authorities had taken the captain following his suicide attempt.

"We're going to keep unloading the ship and figure out exactly what's inside," Martinelli said. "The world needs to sit up and take note: you cannot go around shipping undeclared weapons of war through the Panama Canal."

The international community has imposed sanctions on North Korea for its refusal to halt missile tests. Pyongyang launched a long-range missile last December which the US and its allies believe could one day deliver a nuclear warhead.

hc,kms/lw (AFP, Reuters, dpa)