Two Cuban MiG-21 jet fighters found aboard a seized North Korean cargo ship three months ago were in good repair, had been recently flown and were accompanied by "brand-new" jet engines, Panamanian officials say.
The assertions deepen the mystery around the Cuban military materiel that was found aboard the North Korean freighter Chong Chon Gang, which Panamanian authorities intercepted on July 10 off the Atlantic entrance to the Panama Canal.
"They had jet fuel still inside their tanks," Foreign Minister Fernando Nunez Fabrega said. "They were not obsolete and in need of repair."
One of the MiG-21s contained manuals and maintenance records that indicated it was flying just a few months earlier, said prosecutor Javier Caraballo, who is handling an arms-trafficking case against the 35 North Korean crew members.
In publicly acknowledging the shipment after it was discovered, Cuban officials insisted that the ship was carrying only old aircraft and other parts that were being sent to North Korea for repair when Panamanian authorities, acting on a tip that it was carrying drugs, intercepted it.
Panamanian officials now think the shipment was part of what Nunez Fabrega called "a major deal" between the two countries, though they aren't certain of its scope.
Officials searching the vessel found the MiG aircraft in sealed containers hidden under bags of sugar . They also uncovered 15 jet engines and other weaponry.
"These are brand-new engines," Nunez Fabrega said. He said Cuban officials also had "generalised over very specific items that could have gotten them in trouble", such as a guidance system for anti-aircraft missile defence.
The United Nations has imposed an embargo on arms shipments to North Korea stemming from nuclear tests. A six-member UN team led by David Martin Uden, a former British diplomat, examined the seized armaments during a visit to Panama in mid-August. and is still seeking answers from Cuba.
Foreign Ministry official Tomas Cabal said "friends overseas" had told Panama that the two MiG-21s were part of a larger deal between Cuba and North Korea for 12 jet fighters.
Meanwhile, the 35 crew members from the Chong Chon Gang are biding their time at a former US military base near the Panama Canal.