Updated July 17, 2013 14:28:20
Cuba says it owns weapons seized aboard a North Korean cargo ship in Panama.
Yesterday the president of Panama said the cargo ship had been caught trying to smuggle sophisticated missile equipment through the Panama Canal.
But Havana says the weapons are obsolete and defensive and include Soviet-era anti-aircraft batteries and disassembled rockets that were being sent for repair in North Korea.
The shipment could constitute a violation of strict United Nations arms sanctions imposed on North Korea over its nuclear program and further sour relations between the US and Cuba.
A Cuban government statement said the repair of the weapons was important for "our defensive capacity in order to preserve national sovereignty".
"Cuba reiterates its firm and unwavering commitment with peace, disarmament, including nuclear disarmament and respect for international law," the statement said.
Panama president Ricardo Martinelli tweeted a photo of the contraband haul, which experts have identified as an ageing Soviet-built radar control system for surface-to-air missiles.
His government said the contraband munitions were hidden under thousands of bags of sugar aboard the North Korean-flagged Chong Chon Gang, which was stopped on suspicion it could be transporting drugs.
Panama's security minister, Jose Raul Mulino, told RPC radio the affair was now a matter for UN investigators, while the US hailed the Panamanian action.
The magazine IHS Jane's Defence Weekly said on Tuesday that the photo tweeted by Mr Martinelli appeared to show a "RSN-75 'Fan Song' fire-control radar system".
The weapons were developed in 1957 and frequently used during the Vietnam War.
Cuba said the shipment contained 240 tonnes of weaponry "manufactured in the mid-20th century".
But Panamanian officials said the crew resisted searches and that the ship's captain attempted to commit suicide after the vessel was stopped.
"The manner in which the cargo was concealed, and the reported reaction of the crew, strongly suggests this was a covert shipment of equipment," Jane's Defence Weekly said in a statement.
Mr Martinelli said the ship, which was sailing from Cuba with a crew of about three dozen, was targeted on Friday by drug enforcement officials as it approached the canal and was taken into port in Manzanillo.
After a search, officials found the contraband missiles hidden in a shipment of 100,000 kilograms of sugar.
A Panama government spokesman said an examination of the ship by weapons specialists may take a week.
"The world needs to sit up and take note: you cannot go around shipping undeclared weapons of war through the Panama Canal," Mr Martinelli told Radio Panama on Monday.
The vessel was being held in a restricted zone and the crew has been detained, officials said. No drugs have been found on board.
UN sanctions bar the transport of all weapons to or from North Korea apart from the import of small arms. Several of the country's ships have been searched in recent years.
In July 2009 a North Korean ship heading to Myanmar, the Kang Nam 1, was followed by the US navy due to suspicions it was carrying weapons. It turned around and headed home.
Pyongyang has yet to comment on the latest incident.
Five per cent of the world's commerce travels through the century-old Panama Canal and that is expected to increase following the completion of a major expansion project.
Sean P Eagan