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Panama Finds Fighter Jet Engines On North Korean Ship

A man in Colon, Panama works in a container with a MiG-21 jet inside that was found on the North Korean vessel "Chong Chon Gang."
Panamanian investigators have discovered engines for MiG-21 fighter jets aboard a North Korean ship coming from Cuba that was seized earlier this month.

Cuba originally said the ship was carrying a donation of sugar for North Korea but once weapons were found Havana admitted there were "obsolete" arms on the vessel being sent to North Korea for repairs.

"In these last containers we have found what seem to be jet engines for MiG-21s," Panamanian drug prosecutor Javier Caraballo said on July 31 of what investigators found aboard the North Korean ship "Chong Chon Gang." "We are talking about 12 jet engines in the containers we have opened so far, as well as a vehicle that seems to be some type of control center, used to direct batteries of radars and missiles.”

Two weeks ago, investigators found two MiG-21 fighter jets and two missile radar systems on the ship. The MiG-21 was built between 1959 and 1985.

Caraballo said there were still more compartments in the vessel that needed to be searched.

"At this moment what we can confirm is that they were located in two of the storage areas of the ship where we have been able to work sufficiently in order to uncover the containers that were buried," Caraballo said. "We continue working in a third storage area but at this moment we have not reached a level that would permit us to confirm or rule out that there are more containers."

Panamanian Security Minister and acting Foreign Minister Jose Raul Mulino said his country has asked the UN Security Council to investigate the ship and its cargo amid concerns the vessel is in violation of an arms embargo on North Korea.

"As acting foreign minister I've been speaking with [UN] Ambassador Thalassinos in New York, who at the same time he's been speaking with representatives from that organization," Mulino said. "They've accepted to give us a date, which is the 12th [of August], so that we may be able to work. The logistics here are not simple, we have a problem of physical space, of physical transport and a problem with containers which we do not have enough."

Panama originally searched the North Korean vessel to see if there were any illegal narcotics on board.

North Korea has requested Panama release the vessel and its 35-man crew, but Panama has so far rejected that request.

Mulino said shortly after the vessel was seized and weapons found that the cargo on board violated Panamanian and international law. "It's a commercial ship which wanted to pass through the Panama canal with a [cargo] declaration which failed to reflect what it was carrying," he said at that time.