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Panama releases North Korean ship after Cuban weapons find

Panama has released a North Korean ship seized after it was found to be transporting weapons from Cuba. The ship's owner was forced to pay an almost $700,000 fine. Three crew members face weapons trafficking charges.

The North Korean ship was granted free passage on Saturday after its representatives paid the $693,333 fine to the Panama Canal Authority.

The fine was imposed for violating navigation regulations by not reporting that the Chong Chon Gang was transporting weapons, the authority added in a statement.

The vessel was

detained in July

after a search revealed it was carrying smuggling Soviet-era arms from Cuba. The weapons, which included two MiG-21 aircraft, 15 MiG engines and nine anti-aircraft missiles, were hidden under 10,000 tonnes of sugar.

Panamanian officials said the ship was smuggling weapons in perfect condition, contradicting

Cuban claims that the cargo included "obsolete defensive weapons."

Three of the vessel's highest-ranking crew members, including the captain are being charged with weapons trafficking. Prosecutors said the three had a "clear involvement" in smuggling the Soviet-era arms.

Charges against the remaining 32 crew members were dropped last week. They were transferred into the custody of immigration officials and are reportedly free to return to North Korea.

Meanwhile, a preliminary report presented by a panel of experts to the Sanctions Committee at the UN Security Council concluded that the ship had

violated UN sanctions

against North Korea. The sanctions, which ban armed transfers to the reclusive state, are in response to its controversial nuclear weapons program.

The UN Security Council has yet to decide on penalties against Cuba.

ccp/mr (AP, Reuters)

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