By Lomi Kriel
PANAMA CITY (Reuters) - Cuban weapons seized aboard a North Korean ship in Panamanian waters last month are "without doubt" a violation of United Nations sanctions against arms transfers to Pyongyang, Panama said Wednesday, citing a U.N. report.
Panamanian authorities say they were given a preliminary report, presented by a panel of experts to the Sanctions Committee at the U.N. Security Council, according to a statement by Panama's Ministry of Security.
"According to the first report presented by the panel of experts from the U.N. Sanctions Committee, the Cuban weapons found in the North Korean ship 'without doubt' violate the U.N. sanctions, which validates Panama's position on how it acted," the ministry said, citing the report.
"The Panel (of Experts) confirmed the Panamanian evaluation that there is a violation of the sanctions regime," a Security Council diplomat told Reuters.
Panamanian officials did not release the preliminary report prepared by the panel, which is an independent body tasked with reporting to the U.N. Security Council.
"There are still questions about the Cuban angle in all of this," another Security Council diplomat said, adding that it "will take time" to clarify the incident.
Panamanian investigators detained the Chong Chon Gang last month near the Atlantic entrance to the Panama Canal because they suspected it was carrying drugs. Weapons were found under 10,000 tons of Cuban sugar in sacks.
The panel's findings echo a similar report released Tuesday by a U.S. think tank that concluded the shipment not only breached U.N. sanctions, but was likely meant for Pyongyang's use, and not destined for Havana as Cuban officials maintained.
A team of six U.N. weapons experts has been in Panama investigating whether the weapons violate a 7-year-old U.N. ban on arms transfers to North Korea because of its nuclear weapons and missile development.
After the weapons were discovered, Cuba acknowledged it was sending 240 tons of "obsolete" Soviet-era weapons, including two MiG jets, 15 MiG engines and nine anti-aircraft missiles, to be repaired in North Korea and returned to Cuba.
Cuban officials told Panama the cargo was a donation of sugar for the people of North Korea, according to a senior Panamanian official.
North Korean diplomats, meeting with Panamanian officials Wednesday, declined to comment on the report's findings.
"We're here to give consular access to our crew, nothing more," said Ri Il Gyn, one of two officials visiting from North Korea's Embassy in Havana.
Panamanian Security Minister Jose Raul Mulino said the reports justify the Central American country's actions in detaining the Chong Chon Gang and its 35 sailors.
The Cuban weapons shipment, hidden in "deliberately modified" sections of the vessel, appears to be much larger than Havana acknowledged, according to the analysis by 38 North, a website run by the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Maryland.
The 38 North analysts based their findings on photographs and reports from Panamanian authorities and the United Nations Organization on Drugs and Crime Container Control Program.
The 38 North report also said various rocket-propelled grenades and conventional artillery were in "mint condition," and in their original packaging.
"These items were intended simply for delivery to North Korea for its own use," said the report, co-authored by Hugh Griffiths, a global arms trafficking expert with the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute in Sweden.
Most significant was the packaging of the MiG-21 jet engines, which were carefully stored under protective plastic sheeting. The MiG fuselages, the report said, had no padding and were "rather carelessly packed" in metal containers.
That suggests the engines were intended to be used as replacements in North Korea, and not repaired and returned to Cuba, while the fuselages were likely meant as spare parts, the report by 38 North said.
Mig-21 aircraft are "obsolete by Western standards," but they are as fast as the KF-16, South Korea's main fighter fleet. Allied forces would still have an edge, but expanding North Korea's MiG-21 collection would help Pyongyang's "survivability," the 38 North report said.
Wednesday's meeting between Panamanian officials and North Korean diplomats centered around the future of the crew and ship, which is still detained in the Atlantic port of Manzanillo.
Panamanian officials said they would return the ship to its registered owner as soon as North Korea repairs the vessel's power supply. The crew sabotaged the ship's electrical system and bilge pumps after Panamanian investigators boarded the ship.
The crew are in a former U.S. Army base, charged with threatening Panama's security by trying to ship undeclared weapons through the canal. A Panamanian official told Reuters they would likely be returned to North Korea within a month.
The sugar, meanwhile, remains in large government vats in a rural area in central Panama. Government officials have said they are analyzing to see whether they can sell it to a company interested in turning it into ethanol.
(Editing by David Adams and Stacey Joyce)