Panama freeing most of North Korean crew in smuggled arms case

PANAMA CITY (Reuters) - Panama is freeing most of the 35 North Korean crew members it had detained more than four months ago for smuggling Cuban weapons aboard a ship, a senior government official said on Wednesday.

Mr Tomas Cabal, head of the anti-terrorism section of Panama's Foreign Ministry, said 32 of the crew of the Chong Chon Gang would be freed, and should leave the country by Thursday.

The three most-senior members, including the captain, still face charges of threatening Panama's security by seeking to move undeclared weapons through the Panama Canal.

Mr Cabal said the attorney-general's office had informed him the paperwork to free the crew had been processed. However, the state prosecutor for organised crime Nathaniel Murgas later told reporters that his office was still analysing the North Korean authorities' request to release the men.

The crew's return would end part of a bizarre case involving the three countries that provoked international controversy after the ship was seized in July for smuggling Soviet-era arms, including two MiG-21 aircraft, under 10,000 tonnes of sugar.

"The crew members have effectively been freed. They are drawing up the release order and will go to Havana. I understand they must leave by tomorrow," Mr Cabal said.

Panamanian officials have said the 32 appeared to be ignorant of what was in the cargo.

It was still unclear what would happen to the ship, because a US$1 million (S$1.26 million) fine the Panama Canal Authority imposed on the vessel has not yet been paid.

The United Nations Security Council has yet to decide on penalties against Cuba because of a seven-year-old ban against arms transfers to North Korea due to the country's nuclear weapons programme.

However, the arms will likely be sold or given away, Panama's Foreign Minister Fernando Nunez Fabrega has said.

In July, the North Korean crew sabotaged its electrical system and bilge pumps after Panamanian investigators stopped the ship near the Atlantic entrance to the Panama Canal on suspicion it was carrying drugs after leaving Cuba.