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Did Cuba's arms shipment to North Korea violate sanctions? U.N. will investigate.

Officials in Panama interrupted a shipment of arms from Cuba to North Korea last week. Now, the U.N. Security Council will investigate the incident for a possible breach of sanctions. North Korea says the weapons were being sent in for repairs. 

By Lomi KrielReuters / July 17, 2013

Panama police officers stand guard in front of a container holding a missile-shaped object seized from a North Korean flagged ship in Colon City, Wednesday. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon praised Panama for seizing the ship.

REUTERS/Carlos Jasso

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PANAMA CITY

Panama said on Wednesday it had called on the U.N. Security Council to investigate a North Korean ship caught smuggling arms from Cuba, piling more pressure on Pyongyang over a possible breach of U.N. sanctions.

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Panama stopped the ship last week and seized its cargo after a stand-off with the North Korean crew in which the captain tried to slit his own throat. Authorities discovered missile equipment, MiG fighter jets and other arms aboard that Cuba said were "obsolete" Soviet-era weapons being sent to North Korea for repair.

"It's going to be transferred to the U.N. Security Council. They will decide what to do," Panamanian Security Minister Jose Raul Mulino said in Panama City.

Five U.N. investigators, including one from the Security Council, are expected to arrive around the beginning of August once the ship, the Chong Chon Gang, has been unloaded, Panamanian government officials said.

The North Korean government urged Panama to release the ship and its crew, who were detained and are in the process of being charged for failing to declare the arms on board.

"This cargo is nothing but aging weapons, which are to send back to Cuba after overhauling them according to a legitimate contract," a North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman was quoted as saying by the official KCNA news agency.

The incident has not derailed U.S.-Cuban talks on migration, which went ahead as scheduled on Wednesday, but U.S. officials said Washington would raise the issue of the ship with Cuba very soon. One senior U.S. lawmaker called the matter a "grave violation of international treaties."

The United Nations has imposed various sanctions on Pyongyang, including strict regulations on arms shipments, for flouting measures aimed at curbing its nuclear weapons program.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon praised Panama on Wednesday for seizing the vessel, adding that the U.N. sanctions committee would take up the issue promptly.

About 350 police and border patrol officials were combing through the ship, which has a dead weight of some 14,000 tonnes.

Before their arrest, the ship's crew burned the electrical system to disable it, which slowed the process of unloading it, a Panamanian Foreign Ministry spokesman said. As a result, it could take up to 10 days to unload the ship, he added.

"This ship was loaded so you can't unload it," security minister Mulino said on his Twitter account.

Two more containers with suspected arms have been found on the ship in addition to the two already discovered.

Access points to the ship's storage areas were all "completely blocked" in breach of international regulations, when Panamanian officials boarded it, Mulino said.

Britain's U.N. Ambassador, Mark Lyall Grant, said the ship appeared to have violated the U.N. arms embargo. Britain is a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council.

An eight-member panel of experts appointed by Ban Ki-moon monitors the Security Council sanctions imposed on North Korea.

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