North Koreans to visit arms ship sailors held in Panama

PANAMA CITY (AFP) - A North Korean delegation is expected to visit Panama to see 35 sailors who were detained there after their ship was impounded and Cuban arms were detected aboard.

"We issued them visas so they could enter and they will receive" them tomorrow, Wednesday, Panamanian Foreign Minister Fernando Nunez said on Tuesday.

The sailors have been held on arms trafficking charges that carry maximum sentences of up to 12 years in prison.

The ship, the Chong Chon Gang, was boarded and searched July 10 on suspicion it was smuggling drugs through the Panama Canal.

Authorities instead uncovered 25 containers filled with military hardware, including two stripped down Soviet era MiG-21s, air defence systems, missiles and command and control vehicles, buried under tons of sugar.

Havana said they were obsolete Cuban arms being shipped to North Korea for refurbishment under a legitimate contract.

The sailors are being held at Fort Sherman, a former US military base.

Nunez said their fate depended on Panama's legal process. The Latin American country has no diplomatic relations with North Korea.

A team of UN experts travelled to Panama to inspect the weapons and determine whether the shipment violated a ban against arms transfers to North Korea.