Panamanian authorities believed the ship was returning from Havana on its way to North Korea, Panamanian Public Security Minister Jose Raul Mulino told The Associated Press. Based on unspecified intelligence, authorities suspected it could be carrying contraband and tried to communicate with the crew, who didn't respond. Martinelli said Panama originally suspected drugs could be aboard.
"Panama being a neutral country, a country in peace, that doesn't like war, we feel very worried about this military material," Martinelli said.
In early July, a top North Korean general, Kim Kyok Sik, visited Cuba and met with his island counterparts. The Cuban Communist Party newspaper Granma said he was also received by President Raul Castro, and the two had an "exchange about the historical ties that unite the two nations and the common will to continue strengthening them."
The meetings were held behind closed doors, and there has been no detailed account of their discussions.
"After this incident there should be renewed focus on North Korean-Cuban links," said Hugh Griffiths, an arms trafficking expert at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Griffiths said his institute told the U.N. this year that it had uncovered evidence of a flight from Cuba to North Korea that travelled via central Africa.
"Given the history of North Korea, Cuban military cooperation and now this latest seizure, we find this flight more interesting," he said. "
The Chong Chon Gang has a history of being detained on suspicion of trafficking drugs and ammunition, Griffiths said. Lloyd's List Intelligence said the 34-year-old ship, which is registered to the Pyongyang-based Chongchongang Shipping Company, "has a long history of detentions for safety deficiencies and other undeclared reasons."
Griffiths said the Chong Chon Gang was stopped in 2010 in the Ukraine and was attacked by pirates 400 miles (640 kilometers) off the coast of Somalia in 2009.
Griffiths' institute has also been interested in the ship because of a 2009 stop it made in Tartus — a Syrian port city hosting a Russian naval base.
Follow Michael Weissenstein on Twitter at http://twitter.com/mweissenstein
AP writers Michael Weissenstein from Mexico City, Arnulfo Franco in Manzanillo, Panama, Malin Rising in Stockholm, Peter Orsi in Havana, and Edith M. Lederer and Ron DePasquale at the United Nations contributed to this report.
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