PANAMA CITY – President Ricardo Martinelli said Monday that the captain of a North Korean ship tried to kill himself after the vessel was stopped en route from Cuba and found to have suspected missile material on board.
Outlining a dramatic sequence of events, Martinelli said the ship was targeted by drug enforcement officials as it approached the Panama Canal and was taken into port, but a search revealed a cargo of far greater concern.
The vessel’s estimated 35-man crew also rioted when police stepped aboard, according to Martinelli, who said the suspicious cargo was found within a massive consignment of sugar.
“The world needs to sit up and take note: You cannot go around shipping undeclared weapons of war through the Panama Canal,” he told Radio Panama listeners.
“We had suspected this ship, which was coming from Cuba and headed to North Korea, might have drugs aboard so it was brought into port for search and inspection,” on the Atlantic coast of the country. “When we started to unload the shipment of sugar we located containers that we believe to be sophisticated missile equipment, and that is not allowed.”
The ship is being held and the crew are in custody. “The captain has tried to commit suicide, and the crew rioted” during the operation, the president said.
Martinelli, who did not name the boat, said it was headed back to North Korea when stopped and taken to Manzanillo, east of the Atlantic opening of the Panama Canal, which is a major cargo distribution center.
“Until now we have not found drugs in the boat,” said Javier Caraballo, an anti-drugs enforcement official. “We found military equipment.”