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Cuban arms seizure highlights weapons network

The Associated Press

HAVANA -- Cuba's admission that it was sending aging weapons systems to North Korea has turned the global spotlight on a little-known link in a secretive network of rusting freighters and charter jets that moves weapons to and from the Pyongyang regime despite UN sanctions.

The revelation that Cuba was shipping the arms, purportedly to be repaired and returned, is certain to jeopardize slowly warming ties between the United States and Havana, although the extent of the damage remains uncertain. Experts said Cuba's participation in the clandestine arms network was a puzzling move that promised little military payoff for the risk of incurring UN penalties and imperiling detente with Washington.

The aging armaments, including radar system parts, missiles, and even two jet fighters, were discovered Monday buried beneath thousands of tons of raw Cuban brown sugar piled onto a North Korean freighter that was seized by Panama as it headed for home through the Panama Canal.

North Korea is barred by the UN from buying or selling arms, missiles or components, but for years UN and independent arms monitors have discovered North Korean weaponry headed to Iran, Syria and a host of nations in Africa and Asia.

The UN says North Korea also has repeatedly tried to import banned arms. What's more, analysts say, it maintains a thriving sideline in repairing aging Soviet-era Warsaw Pact gear, often in exchange for badly needed commodities, such as Burmese rice.

"They don't know how to grow rice, but they know how to repair radars," said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, a private group dedicated to promoting arms control.

The surprise for many observers was that the latest shipment of arms headed to North Korea comes from Cuba, which acknowledged Tuesday that it was shipping anti-aircraft missile systems, fighter jets and jet engines to be repaired there.

The discovery was expected to trigger an investigation by the UN Security Council committee that monitors the sanctions against North Korea, and Panamanian officials said UN investigators were expected in Panama Thursday.

Panamanian officials said that the ship's crew was the subject of a criminal investigation.

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