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US agrees to free North Korea Scud ship

Sanaa (Yemen)/Washington, Dec. 11 (Reuters): The United States found itself embroiled in an international tussle over its seizure of a North Korean ship carrying hidden Scud missiles and chemicals which Yemen said today were bound for its army.

The So San, seized by Spain and the US in the Arabian Sea, will be allowed to sail for Yemen, the official Yemeni news agency Saba reported late tonight.

It said US secretary of state Colin Powell told Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh by telephone that the crew had returned to the ship and that the weapons cargo was headed for Yemen. Earlier, Vice-President Dick Cheney told Saleh the US had agreed to release the vessel because its cargo was legal, the agency said.

After the ship was seized, Yemen, which has tried to shed its image as a haven for militants, protested to the US and Spain, saying the missiles had been bought for its army from North Korea.

US concerns appear to centre on fears that the Scuds could be mounted with warheads filled with chemical, biological or nuclear materials by Iraq or another rogue state.

Independent defence experts said North Korea was probably not violating any law by transporting the cargo, although Spanish defence minister Federico Trillo said Spain had had the right to board the vessel because it was not flagged.

North Korea is not a member of the Missile Control Technology Regime that controls exports and Yemen said the shipment was part of an agreement with North Korea reached some time ago. A US defence official, who asked not to be identified, had earlier suggested to Reuters that the Scuds would be released to Yemen if it had bought them from North Korea, despite Washington’s belief that Pyongyang is a proliferator of dangerous military technology.

“Right now, the ship is carrying ‘undeclared cargo’,” the official said. “But if they (the missiles) become legal cargo, there is not much we can do. Weapons sales between two countries are not against the law. Only Iraq is forbidden (under UN sanctions) to buy weapons.”

Sharp words

North Korea, declared part of Washington’s “axis of evil” along with Iraq and Iraq, drew sharp words from US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, visiting Djibouti, across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen.

“They continue to be the single largest proliferator of ballistic missile technology on the face of the earth, and they are putting into the hands of many countries the technologies and capabilities which have the potential for killing hundreds of thousands of people,” Rumsfeld told reporters.

The seizure, in which Spanish Marine special forces dropped onto the deck from helicopters, took place in international waters near Yemen, site of the October 2000 attack on the US warship Cole which Washington blamed on the al Qaida.

“The shipment is part of contracts signed some time ago. It belongs to the Yemeni government and its army and meant for defensive purposes,” Yemen’s official news agency Saba quoted foreign minister Abubakr al-Qirbi as saying.

“The foreign minister stressed the importance of the return of the shipment to the Yemeni government,” it said.

Trillo told a news conference in Madrid that 15 Scud missiles, 15 conventional warheads, 23 tanks of nitric acid rocket propellant and 85 drums of unidentified chemicals had been found hidden under cement bags.

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