PANAMA CITY (AFP) - Panama on Monday stopped a North Korean vessel that President Ricardo Martinelli said had sailed from Cuba and tried to illegally sneak suspected sophisticated missile material through the Panama Canal.
"The world needs to sit up and take note: you cannot go around shipping undeclared weapons of war through the Panama Canal," Mr Martinelli said, noting that the ship had been inspected to rule out drugs and was found to have other cargo of greater concern.
"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, the president said on Radio Panama.
"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," Mr Martinelli stressed, describing a dramatic scene in which he said the ship's captain tried to kill himself.
"The captain has tried to commit suicide, and the crew also rioted," when police moved in, Mr Martinelli said. "So we are holding this vessel for further investigation."
Cuba is the only one-party Communist regime in the Americas, and a rare ally of also-isolated Pyongyang.
China is the main ally of North Korea, which defiantly carried out its third nuclear weapons test in February and threatened to attack the United States, in language that was shrill even by the standards of the reclusive communist state.
Cuba's coast lies just 90 miles (145km) from the United States' southeastern flank.
Back in 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world to the brink of nuclear war at the height of the Cold War. US and Soviet leaders had a 13-day political and military standoff in October 1962 over the installation of nuclear-armed Soviet missiles on Cuban soil. In the end disaster was avoided when Washington agreed to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev's offer to remove the missiles in exchange for a US pledge not to invade Cuba. Then president John F. Kennedy also secretly agreed to remove US missiles from Turkey.