PANAMA CITY (AP) — All but three of the 35 North Korean crew members detained when authorities found that their ship was carrying weapons from Cuba will be released from prison and allowed to return to their country, a Panamanian official said.
The official said the captain, his assistant and a political emissary still face charges. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not allowed to discuss the case.
The crew members are accused of illegal possession of weapons, which carries a maximum penalty of 12 years in prison.
Another person close to the case who also spoke on condition of anonymity confirmed Monday that the 32 men will likely be let go next week.
North Korea is demanding Panama return the 10,000 tons of sugar the ship was carrying when it was seized July 15 because it's needed to make candy for an end of the year celebration for North Korean children, he said.
"The sugar is valued at $5 million," he said.
Another captain, an assistant and a mechanic are expected to arrive from North Korea in the coming days to help sail the ship back to Asia, he added.
The ship was headed from Cuba to North Korea when it was seized by authorities, who said they suspected it carried drugs. A Panamanian official said the ship carried two Cuban fighter jets in perfect condition, contradicting Cuba's explanation that the cargo included "obsolete defensive weapons."
A preliminary report by United Nations experts determined that the seized ship violated U.N. sanctions barring the supplying of weapons to North Korea.
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