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Wednesday, 11 December, 2002, 17:09 GMT
Yemen protests over Scud seizure
Spanish Marines board the So San
Troops were lowered onto the ship from a helicopter
Yemen has demanded the return of 15 Scud missiles and warheads seized by US and Spanish forces while en route to the country from North Korea.


The foreign minister stressed the importance of the return of the shipment to the Yemeni Government

Official Yemeni news agency

The Spanish Navy, acting on American intelligence, intercepted and boarded the unflagged North Korean freighter So San in the Arabian Sea.

The missiles and warheads, along with a quantity of chemicals, were found hidden under a cargo of cement, and the ship was handed over to the US Navy.

The Yemeni Government said the shipment was destined for its army, and has lodged formal protests with the US and Spain over the seizure.

Scud missiles among sacks of cement
Thousands of sacks of cement covered the weapons
The So San is reportedly being escorted to the British-owned Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia, used by the Americans as a military base.

While the Yemeni Government is not regarded as an enemy by the US, there are fears that such military hardware could fall into the hands of radical Islamic groups operating in the country.

The US is also deeply concerned about North Korea's ballistic missile and nuclear programmes, which it regards as a threat to world peace.

The official Yemeni news agency, Saba, quoted Foreign Minister Abubakr al-Qirbi as saying: "The shipment is part of contracts signed some time ago.

South Korean reads about the seizure of the So San
The revelations have caused concern in South Korea
"It belongs to the Yemeni Government and its army and meant for defensive purposes."

The news agency added: "The foreign minister stressed the importance of the return of the shipment to the Yemeni Government."

The Bush administration responded by saying that the US and Yemen were in talks on "the next steps to take".

BBC defence correspondent Jonathan Marcus says the admission by Yemen that it ordered the missiles now opens up the question what the arms shipment was doing hidden beneath thousands of sacks of cement if the consignment was legal.

US intelligence had been tracking the So San closely before it was stopped and boarded about 960 kilometres (600 miles) east of the Horn of Africa on Monday.

Two Spanish warships, which had been patrolling in the area as part of a multinational force in the US-led war against terror, intercepted the So San and ordered it to stop.

When its captain refused, the frigate Navarra fired on the ship, destroying part of its mast, a manoeuvre which allowed Spanish Marines to be lowered onto the freighter from a helicopter.

The Spanish forces then alerted a US ship in the area, reportedly the assault ship USS Nassau which had recently completed a training exercise off Kenya.

American military personnel from this ship then boarded the So San and discovered the missiles, warheads and chemicals before impounding the vessel.

Regional tour

The dispute comes as US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is touring the region.


They are putting in the hands of many countries technology and capabilities which have the potential for destroying hundreds of thousands of people

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

Speaking ahead of the Yemeni statement, Mr Rumsfeld condemned North Korea.

Mr Rumsfeld said: "North Korea doesn't like to hear me say it, but they continue to be the largest proliferator of missiles and ballistic missile technology on the face of the Earth.

"They are putting in the hands of many countries technology and capabilities which have the potential for destroying hundreds of thousands of people."

Mr Rumsfeld declined to comment on whether the missile shipment constituted a violation of international law, but said there were legal issues surrounding efforts to conceal the weapons.

Questions about the legality of the seizure have already been raised.

'Axis of evil'

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.

Scud missile in its launcher
North Korea has sent missiles to Yemen before
North Korea, which has admitted having a nuclear weapons programme, has been described by President George W Bush as being part of an "axis of evil" which includes Iraq and Iran.

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.


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The BBC's Jim Fish
"The Yemeni government has now lodged a formal protest with Spain"
See also:

11 Dec 02 | Asia-Pacific
11 Dec 02 | Middle East
11 Dec 02 | Asia-Pacific
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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