Military equipment found by Panamanian authorities on a North Korean boat consisted of "240 metric tons of obsolete defensive weapons" sent to North Korea for repair, Cuba's Foreign Ministry said.
The equipment, hidden beneath packages of brown sugar on the boat, was manufactured in the mid-20th century and included two anti-aircraft missile complexes, nine missiles in parts and spares, two MiG-21 jets and 15 motors for this type of airplane, the foreign ministry said.
"The agreements subscribed by Cuba in this field are supported by the need to maintain our defensive capacity in order to preserve national sovereignty," the statement said. "The Republic of Cuba reiterates its firm and unwavering commitment with peace, disarmament, including nuclear disarmament, and respect for international law."
The Cuban government's revelation, which was also read on state television, is the latest chapter in an international drama that has all the elements of a thriller: a violent confrontation on a detained North Korean ship, a suspected missile onboard, a heart attack and an attempted suicide.
Panamanian authorities on Tuesday were examining the military equipment, discovered late Monday during an anti-drug inspection.
Because it is pursuing nuclear weapons, North Korea is banned by the United Nations from importing and exporting most weapons.
Few details of the confrontation were available, but the ship's North Korean crew of 35 resisted arrest, said Panama's security minister, Jose Raul Mulino. He described it as "violent," saying that the crew tried to sabotage the ship by cutting cables on the cranes that would be used to unload cargo.
As it is, Mulino said, authorities now have to remove 255,000 sacks of brown sugar by hand.
During the struggle with Panamanian authorities, the ship's captain suffered an apparent heart attack and then tried to kill himself, according to President Ricardo Martinelli.
The crew also refused to raise the ship's anchor, Mulino said, forcing Panamanian authorities to cut the anchor loose to move the ship.
The situation was intriguing enough that Martinelli himself traveled to the ship to take a look -- with reporters in tow.
Is it a missile? a reporter asked.
"Maybe," Martinelli said. "I am not familiar with that, but it would be good if such things didn't pass through Panama, which is a country that loves peace and not war."
The president tweeted a photo of what he saw: a green octagon-shaped tube with a cone at its end and a similar-looking piece of equipment behind it. A defense analysis website identified the photo as radar equipment for a surface-to-air missile system.
As of Tuesday, authorities had not identified the military equipment or its country of origin, Mulino said. Those details would not be known until all the sugar was unloaded and the objects removed from the ship.
Martinelli said he didn't examine all the containers but assumes that there is similar military equipment in the others, hidden under the sugar.
Military analyst IHS Jane's released a statement Tuesday identifying the equipment shown in the photos as "fire control" radar equipment for surface-to-air missiles.
Jane's proposed two theories about why the equipment was on board the ship. "One possibility is that Cuba could be sending the system to North Korea for an upgrade. In this case, it would likely be returned to Cuba and the cargo of sugar could be a payment for the services," the statement said.
Jane's other theory was that "the fire-control radar equipment could have been en route to North Korea to augment Pyongyang's existing air defense network. North Korea's air defense network is arguably one of the densest in the world, but it is also based on obsolete weapons, missiles and radars."
U.S. officials also said they're looking at the possibility that Cuba was sending radar for surface-to-air missiles back to North Korea for an upgrade. The officials said the radar, which tracks targets for the missiles, is believed to be the major piece of military equipment on board the North Korean freighter.
Panama said it will ask a United Nations technical support team to inspect the cargo to determine what type of weaponry it is.
"Honestly, this kind of military equipment can't go through the country while declaring that it is something else, especially hiding it as you can see here," Martinelli said. "We will continue to empty the entire ship to see what's in it, and the relevant authorities will determine what exactly is on this ship."
Panama has not officially reported the incident to the United Nations, a spokeswoman for the U.N. secretary-general said. If that happens, a U.N. panel of experts would review the incident.
"If it is confirmed that the vessel was carrying arms or related materiel and that the shipment was part of a purchase or sale to or from the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, then there would indeed be a breach of the U.N. sanctions regime relating to that country," spokeswoman Morana Song said.
Members of the U.N.'s North Korea sanctions committee have seen media reports about the boat and are awaiting a formal notification with details from Panama.