Panamanian authorities have charged 33 crew members of the North Korean freighter seized at the Panama Canal with endangering public security by attempting to traffic undeclared weapons, local news media reported Thursday.
State prosecutor Javier Caraballo said the weapons trafficking charges could result in sentences of up to six years if the crew members are tried and convicted, the Panama City newspaper La Prensa reported on its website.
Caraballo also reported that the 35 crewmen on board when the freighter was intercepted July 10 were "contentious" and refusing to cooperate with investigators. It was not immediately clear why two of the crew members reportedly were not charged.
The North Korean sailors, apparently fearful of Pyongyang's punishment for allowing the ship to be seized, forcefully resisted being boarded and sabotaged the ship's cranes to make the search and cargo movement more difficult. The captain was also reported to have attempted suicide during the confrontation.
More than 350 police officers and investigators were still combing through the docked Chong Chon Gang on Thursday, eight days after the vessel was stopped on suspicion of drug shipment. Panamanian authorities instead found a large cache of outdated Soviet-era weapons systems and two MIG fighter jets buried beneath 200,000 sacks of sugar.
North Korea insisted Wednesday that Panama release the ship and its crew, arguing that the vessel had been stopped on erroneous suspicion of drug transport. Pyongyang also argues that as the weapons maintenance work was done in exchange for barter goods, it doesn't technically violate sanctions imposed on North Korea by the United Nations for violating the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty with its pursuit of atomic weapons capabilities.
The Cuban government came forward after the ship seizure to say that the military cargo -- two anti-aircraft missile batteries, nine disassembled missiles, the two MIG-21 aircraft and 15 MIG engines -- belong to Havana and were being taken to North Korea for repair and upgrading. Cuba's statement said the equipment and armaments were decades-old Soviet manufacture and “obsolete.”
Meanwhile, according to the Global Post, authorities searching the impounded vessel discovered two more crates of military equipment in apparent violation of the U.N. sanctions.
The Global Post also reported that rain in the area of the Panama Canal where the ship was docked has turned the opened sugar sacks into sticky messes that have attracted swarms of bees to the search venue.
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