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U.S. intercepts N. Korean missile shipment

A vessel boarded 600 miles from Yemen has about 12 Scud missiles and parts. Officials aren't sure of the final destination.

Compiled from Times wires

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 11, 2002

WASHINGTON -- A North Korean-crewed ship carrying 12 Scud missiles bound for Yemen has been boarded and seized by Spanish and U.S. military forces in the Arabian Sea, Pentagon and administration officials said Tuesday.

U.S. intelligence satellites and Navy ships had been tracking the ship, the So San, since it left North Korea during the middle of last month, the officials said. It was boarded early Monday about 600 miles southeast of Yemen in international waters.

The ship contained about a dozen short- to medium-range missiles, similar to the Scud missiles used by Iraq in the Persian Gulf War. It also contained missile parts.

Analysts said that the major significance of the incident was not that North Korea was shipping missiles -- it actively sells them around the region -- but that the United States had apparently made a policy decision to try to stop such shipments.

The ship was headed for Yemen, but U.S. officials said they weren't sure which country or group was the end recipient. There were no indications the ship was going to Iraq, the officials said. Another concern was that members of al-Qaida could be trying to acquire missiles.

A White House spokesman said the United States would enlist the help of allies in the region to fashion its next move. "This is an issue of concern," said spokesman Sean McCormack. "We are working with other governments to figure out the next step."

McCormack said the immediate tasks were to deal with the crew and to secure the ship.

North Korea has been actively selling ballistic missiles and parts to several countries, including Pakistan, Yemen, Syria and Iran.

Nonproliferation experts said Tuesday night that North Korea likely is not breaking any laws in selling the missiles; several analysts said that North Korea has not signed a nonproliferation treaty that pledges a halt to such sales.

Evidence of a North Korean effort to ship ballistic missiles to the Middle East during a tense standoff between Iraq and the United States can only deepen the strain on the already tense relationship between Washington and Pyongyang. It has been barely two months since the North Korean government admitted that it maintains a nuclear weapons program in defiance of international agreements.

The incident may also chill U.S. relations with Yemen, which backed Iraq during the 1991 Persian Gulf War and then was the site of an October 2000 attack on a U.S. Navy destroyer, the USS Cole, that killed 17 American sailors.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, Yemen has been a partner in the U.S.-led war on terrorism. U.S. Special Forces trainers began operating there this year to improve Yemeni antiterrorist capabilities. And just last month, when the United States conducted an airstrike against suspected terrorists in Yemen using an unmanned Predator drone aircraft firing Hellfire missiles, the Yemeni government quickly made it known that it had agreed to the action.

The Washington Post cited an intelligence official as saying Yemen apparently bought the missiles to upgrade the handful of aging Scuds that it already possesses. Yemen repeatedly has promised not to purchase missiles or parts in recent months, another official said.

The incident began around dawn local time Monday, when two Spanish navy ships, the Navarra and the Patino, signaled the freighter to stop. When the ship, sailing under a Cambodian flag but believed to be owned by North Korea, tried to evade capture, the Spanish ships fired warning shots across its bow. When it continued to try to escape, Spanish special forces troops conducted a hostile boarding by helicopter.

The crew of about 20 people was then put under guard and the ship was searched. It quickly became apparent that there were problems with the legal status of the ship, officials said, noting that its original name had been painted over to conceal its North Korean origin, and its registry papers weren't in order. Also, a quick search uncovered major discrepancies between the ship's manifest, which listed a cargo of cement, and the actual load. The Spanish soldiers opened large containers partially hidden by the cement and found missile parts. They then called in U.S. military experts in handling explosives.

The USS Nassau, which usually carries Marines, helicopters and Harrier jump-jets, is standing by the freighter. Additional searches are under way.

The Scud is based on a Soviet-era design for a tactical surface-to-surface missile with a range of about 390 miles. It is not highly accurate and is of less military utility when armed with conventional explosives.

But Scuds can be armed with more lethal warheads of chemical or biological weapons, which do not require the same accuracy to perform their mission.

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