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North Korean ship leaves Panama months after it was seized

By Kevin Wang, CNN
updated 12:56 PM EST, Sat February 15, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Three ship officers must remain to face weapons smuggling charges
  • Panama stopped the ship last July and said undeclared weaponry was aboard
  • The Cuban government says they are "obsolete" weapons

(CNN) -- The North Korean cargo ship seized last July by Panamanian authorities for carrying an illegal arms shipment departed Panamanian waters Saturday, Panama's Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

The North Korean-flagged vessel Chong Chon Gang headed toward Cuba after the International Red Cross determined the 32 sailors aboard were fit to travel, the ministry said.

The ship's captain, first officer and political secretary remain in Panama to face weapons smuggling charges, the ministry said.

Panama stopped the ship in July, and authorities said they found undeclared weaponry from Cuba -- including MiG fighter jets, anti-aircraft systems and explosives -- buried under thousands of bags of sugar.

The Cuban government said the shipment consisted of "obsolete" weapons being sent to North Korea for repairs before they were to be returned to Cuba. But Panama said it violated United Nations arms sanctions on North Korea.

Because it is pursuing nuclear weapons, North Korea is banned by the United Nations from importing and exporting most weapons.

North Korea paid a fine of nearly $700,000 for violating regulations for navigation in canal waters, according to the Panama Canal Authority.

Journalist Castalia Pascual and CNN's Kevin Wang and Jethro Mullen contributed to this story

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