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Panama’s search of North Korean ship triggers ‘violent’ confrontation

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By Castalia Pascual and David Simpson, CNN

(CNN) — A mystery with potential international ramifications is unfolding in Panama, where authorities discovered military equipment hidden inside a North Korean-flagged ship that originated in Cuba.

Cuba has long been at odds with the United States, and North Korea is banned by the United Nations from importing and exporting most weapons because of its nuclear ambitions. Suspicions were further raised when the ship’s captain suffered an apparent heart attack, and then tried to commit suicide, Panama’s president said.

These facts were sufficiently intriguing for President Ricardo Martinelli to travel to the port and examine the ship himself.

The president tweeted a photo of what he saw — a green octagon-shaped tube with a cone at its end and another similar-looking piece of equipment behind it.

Is it a missile, a reported asked?

“Maybe,” Martinelli said. “I am not familiar with that, but it would be good if such things didn’t pass through Panama, which is a country that loves peace and not war.”

The president said he did not examine all of the containers, but assumes that there are similar weapons in the others, hidden under a cargo of brown sugar.

Authorities seized the vessel and the undeclared haul of weaponry in the Panamanian port of Manzanillo on Monday night.

Panama’s security minister, Jose Raul Mulino, told CNN the ship had arrived from Cuba.

Panamanian authorities received intelligence the ship was carrying drugs, but the search turned up the military equipment instead.

Mulino added that the North Korean crew of 35 resisted arrest, and during the struggle with Panamanian authorities, the ship’s captain attempted to commit suicide.

Panama will ask a United Nations technical support team to inspect the cargo to determine what type of weaponry it is.

“Honestly, this kind of military equipment can’t go through the country while declaring that it is something else, especially hiding it as you can see here,” Martinelli said. “We will continue to empty the entire ship to see what’s in it and the relevant authorities will determine what exactly is on this ship.”