A police officer stands guard July 17 as investigating officers look inside a recently opened container holding military equipment aboard a North Korean-flagged freighter at the Manzanillo International container terminal on the coast of Colon City, Panama. A Panamanian official said Oct. 11 that the two Cuban MiG-21 jet fighters found aboard the seized North Korean cargo ship were in perfect conditions to operate and that the 15 plane engines are new and could be used as replacements. (Arnulfo Franco / AP)
PANAMA CITY — Two Cuban fighter jets seized from a North Korean ship in July were in perfect condition to operate and the 15 plane engines that were found along with them were relatively new and could be used as replacements, a Panamanian official said Friday.
The comments by Belsio Gonzalez, director of Panama’s National Aeronautics and Ocean Administration, appear to contradict the explanation of the cargo given by Cuban authorities.
The ship, Chong Chon Gang, was intercepted July 15 in the Panama Canal with 25 containers of Cuban military equipment found beneath the 10,000 tons of sugar. The equipment was not listed on the ship’s manifest. The ship’s captain and 35 crew members remain in custody in Panama.
After the seizure, Cuba said the cargo included “obsolete defensive weapons” including two MiG-21 fighter jets and 15 motors, nine missiles in parts, and two anti-aircraft systems that were being shipped to North Korea “to be repaired and returned.”
But Gonzalez said in an email Friday that the fighter jets “are in operational condition and their engines are in excellent shape.”
He said the planes were iconic in the 1960s and 1970s and their navigation systems are obsolete compared to jets built in recent decades, “but they are still fighter planes.”
A Panamanian official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to be quoted by name, said the aircraft had fuel in them, which suggests they had recently been used.
“To say they are obsolete is incorrect,” the official said.
The officials said that the weapons’ shipment was part of an agreement between Cuba and North Korean and that Havana was going to receive $200 million for them.
Cuban authorities did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
A U.N. panel of experts monitoring sanctions against North Korea visited Panama in mid-August to investigate the arms seizure. But its report has yet to be made public.
U.N. sanctions state that member states shall prevent the direct or indirect supply, sale or transfer of all arms and materiel to North Korea, and related spare parts, except for small arms and light weapons.