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Cuban jets bound for N. Korea airworthy

| Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013, 7:12 p.m.

PANAMA CITY — 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 508-foot North Korean freighter Chong Chon Gang, which Panamanian authorities intercepted 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's handling an arms trafficking case against the 35 North Korean crew members. Caraballo declined a reporter's request to see the records.

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 that 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 100-pound bags of sugar — 10,000 tons worth — in the ship's hold. They uncovered 15 jet engines and other weaponry.

“These are brand-new engines,” Nunez Fabrega said. He said Cuban officials in their public statement “generalized over very specific items that could have gotten them in trouble,” such as a guidance system for anti-aircraft missile defense.

The United Nations has imposed an embargo on arms shipments to North Korea stemming from that country's 2006, 2009 and 2013 nuclear tests.

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