Panama discovers hidden weapons aboard North Korea-bound ship

A ship sails through the Pacific Ocean's entry to the Panama Canal on Oct. 19, 2006.

PANAMA CITY (Reuters) — Panama has detained a North Korean-flagged ship coming from Cuba as it approached the Panama Canal with undeclared weapons, President Ricardo Martinelli said.

The weapons, hidden in containers of brown sugar, were detected after Panamanian authorities stopped the ship, suspecting it was carrying drugs. The vessel was pulled over near the port of Manzanillo on the Atlantic side of the canal.

"We're going to keep unloading the ship and figure out exactly what was inside," Martinelli told Panamanian television late on Monday, without giving further details.

"You cannot go around shipping undeclared weapons of war through the Panama Canal."

The Panamanian president tweeted a picture of the cargo, which looks like a large missile (see below).

Martinelli said the captain of the vessel tried to commit suicide after the ship was stopped. Panamanian authorities have detained some 35 crew members.

A spokeswoman for the canal said she did not have any more information and referred questions to the attorney general.

The attorney general's office did not immediately return requests for comment.

Javier Caraballo, Panama's top anti-drugs prosecutor, told local television the ship was en route to North Korea.

UN arms sanctions mean that North Korea cannot export weapons. It is also banned from importing weapons, except small arms.

The sanctions were tightened in February after North Korean missile tests. North Korean ships have been targeted and regularly stopped and searched for suspicious cargo.

It is believed that as a part of the country's missile development program, North Korea is seeking to create a nuclear warhead that can be placed on an intercontinental ballistic missile.

About 14,000 ships pass through the Panama canal each year. It is the country's main source of revenue.

Here's a picture of the hidden cargo, tweeted by the Panamanian president:

(Reporting by Lomi Kriel; editing by Elizabeth Piper)