MOSCOW / MEXICO, July 18 (RIA Novosti) - The North Korean Foreign Ministry requested Panama to release its vessel carrying military equipment from Cuba, South Korean and Western media said on Wednesday.
"The Panamanian authorities should take a step to let the apprehended crewmen and ship leave without delay," the North Korean foreign ministry was quoted as saying by Associated Press.
South Korea’s Yonhap news agency quoted an unnamed foreign ministry spokesman, whose statement was carried by Pyongyang’s state-run KCNA news agency, as describing Monday’s inspection of a North Korea-flagged ship on suspicion of drug trafficking as a "fiction."
"The Panamanian investigation authorities rashly attacked and detained the captain and crewmen of the ship on the plea of 'drug investigation' and searched its cargo but did not discover any drug," the spokesman said. "Yet, they are justifying their violent action, taking issue with other kind of cargo aboard the ship."
Panama’s authorities reacted to North Korea’s statement by recalling visas for two North Korean diplomats who were to arrive to the country for further discussions.
“Two visas, issued to the diplomats, will be annulled in connection with irrational statements issued by their [North Korean] government,” Mexican media quoted a spokesman for the country’s government as saying.
The ship was stopped by Panama’s last week as it headed into the Panama Canal. Its crew was arrested after an inspection revealed that it had a shipment of brown sugar from Cuba and undeclared “missile-shaped objects.” The ship’s crew were questioned on Wednesday, but refused to testify.
U.S. Ambassador Rosemary DiCarlo, this month’s president of the UN Security Council, told reporters in New York on Tuesday that shipments of arms to North Korea would be in breach of Security Council resolutions, Reuters said.
Both Pyongyang and Cuba said the ship carried obsolete weapons to be repaired and returned to Cuba.
The Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the vessel had two anti-aircraft missile complexes, nine missile parts and spares, two Mig-21 Bis and 15 motors for those planes, all manufactured in the mid-20th century, Yonhap reported.
Associated Press quoted the North Korean foreign ministry as saying that the ship’s cargo was “nothing but aging weapons which [North Koreans] are to send back to Cuba after overhauling them according to a legitimate contract."
Panama’s Public Security Minister Jose Raul Mulino was quoted as saying by Latin American media that a commission of UN experts will arrive to the country to inspect the cargo on August 5.
Updated with statements by Panama officials