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Wednesday, 11 December, 2002, 11:55 GMT
Scud missiles seized in Arabian Sea
Warplane takes off from US carrier in the Arabian Sea
The US has beefed up its forces in the Arabian Sea
United States experts are examining a ship in the Arabian Sea after it was stopped by two Spanish warships and found to be carrying concealed Scud missiles.

The cargo was found aboard a North Korean ship - the So San - and US officials believe it was bound for Yemen.

Armitage: North Korea is a "major proliferator"

Spanish Defence Minister Federico Trillo told a news conference that 15 complete Scud missile bodies, 15 highly-explosive conventional warheads and nitric acid were found during a search of the vessel by the Spanish navy.

He added that the ship was heading for "a port in the Middle East".

US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said North Korea was "one of the major proliferators and it appears she was busy proliferating again".

The Yemeni authorities have not yet commented on the seizure, but President Ali Abdullah Saleh confirmed in August that Yemen had bought Scuds from North Korea.

Sources close to the Yemeni Government, quoted by the French news agency AFP, said it was trying to obtain parts for the army's Scud missiles.

US-South Korean talks

US officials said the missiles were similar to ones used by Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War - but a senior State Department official said there was no evidence that they were destined for Iraq.

US and South Korean officials discussed the missile issue in Seoul on Wednesday, in talks which were originally called to discuss a row over the death of two schoolgirls in a road accident involving a US military vehicle. Mr Armitage, who is now visiting China, said the discovery of the shipment was unlikely to change Washington's policy towards Pyongyang.

"Obviously, this was expected by American authorities for some time," he said. "I don't think there's any change. This is not exactly a development that is new."

North Korea, which has admitted having a nuclear weapons programme, has been described by US President George W Bush as being part of an "axis of evil" which includes Iraq and Iran.

The Spanish warships, which had been patrolling in the area as part of a multinational force in the war against terror, called in US explosives experts after putting a search team aboard.

The BBC defence correspondent, Jonathan Marcus, says the incident will revive US security concerns over both North Korea and the Middle East.

Vessel tracked

Twenty-three containers filled with the arms were reportedly found aboard the ship, concealed under 40,000 sacks of cement.

Scud missile in its launcher
North Korea has sent missiles to Yemen before

US intelligence had been tracking the vessel closely before it was stopped and boarded about 960 kilometres (600 miles) east of the Horn of Africa, unnamed US officials told news agencies.

"We have made no final determinations as to the intended destination of the ship," said White House National Security Council spokesman Sean McCormack.

Warning shots

A Spanish defence ministry source told Reuters news agency that the So San had been listed in a database as "suspected of illegal trafficking".

The Spanish defence minister said it was flying the Cambodian flag.

The Spanish frigate Navarra and an accompanying support ship, the Patino, called on the cargo ship to stop its engines and fired warning shots when it refused.

When the Spanish officials boarded it, they found that the captain was North Korean - they then alerted a US ship in the area which sent out inspectors.

Washington imposed sanctions on North Korea after it supplied Yemen with Scud missiles in 1999-2000, in a deal which Yemen vigorously defended at the time.

Although Yemen was accused by the US of "harbouring terrorists" in the wake of the 11 September attacks on America, its government has co-operated in the war against terror.

Our defence correspondent says it is a mystery why Yemen would want to expand its existing missile force at this time.

While there is nothing to link this cargo to Iraq, both ends of this deal will alarm the Bush administration, our correspondent says.

Regional tour

The boarding of the ship comes as US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is touring the region.

After visits to Eritrea and neighbouring Ethiopia he is to go on to Djibouti, where several hundred US troops have been training in preparation for possible strikes against militants.

Last month, the US killed six "dangerous" al-Qaeda suspects in Yemen, when an unmanned aircraft operated by the CIA fired a missile destroying a car.

The men were alleged to have been responsible for the bombing of a US warship in Aden harbour two years ago.

The BBC's Bob Berry
"There is nothing to link this cargo to Iraq"
The BBC's Frank Gardner
"These are long range missiles which can carry nuclear, biological or chemical warheads"
Aiden Foster Carter, Leeds University
"North Korea would sell anything to anyone"
See also:

11 Dec 02 | Asia-Pacific
10 Nov 02 | Americas
17 Nov 02 | Middle East
08 Nov 02 | Africa
07 Nov 02 | Middle East
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