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Wednesday, 11 December, 2002, 18:59 GMT
US frees missile-carrying ship
Spanish Marines board the So San
Troops were lowered onto the ship from a helicopter
The United States has allowed a ship carrying 15 Scud missiles and warheads to Yemen to proceed on its way after the vessel and its crew were detained for two days.

We have to be guided by the law in this matter

White House spokesman
The move came after Yemen lodged formal protests with the US and Spain after both nations' armed forces had seized and boarded the ship.

A White House spokesman, Ari Fleischer, said the unflagged freighter So San was released after high-level discussions between US Secretary of State Colin Powell and senior Yemeni Government figures.

Scud missiles among sacks of cement
Thousands of sacks of cement covered the weapons
Mr Fleischer told a news briefing in Washington that American concerns that the cargo - a Yemeni purchase from North Korea - was being taken to a "potential terrorist nation" had proved unfounded. He did not specify which nation he was referring to.

He added that there was no provision under international law which allowed the impounding of such a cargo.

"While there is authority to stop and search, in this instance there is no authority to seize a shipment of Scud missiles from North Korea to Yemen and therefore the merchant vessel is being released," he said.

'Defensive weapons'

The diplomatic incident began when the Spanish Navy intercepted and boarded the So San in the Arabian Sea about 960 kilometres (600 miles) east of the Horn of Africa on Monday.

US intelligence had been tracking the So San closely before it was stopped and boarded.

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

South Korean reads about the seizure of the So San
News of the shipment caused concern in South Korea
The Yemeni Government said the shipment was destined for its army.

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

"It belongs to the Yemeni Government and its army and is meant for defensive purposes."

'Axis of evil'

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.

However, there have been fears that military hardware delivered to the country could fall into the hands of radical Islamic groups operating there.

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

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.

The BBC's Frank Gardner
"Clearly the two countries are not sharing all of their secrets"
Duncan Lennox, Jane's Strategic Weapons Systems
"Yemen has had scud missiles since the early 90s"
The BBC's Jake Lynch
"It now seems clear that this shipment had nothing to do with terrorism at all"
See also:

11 Dec 02 | Americas
11 Dec 02 | Asia-Pacific
11 Dec 02 | Asia-Pacific
11 Dec 02 | Middle East
11 Dec 02 | Asia-Pacific
17 Nov 02 | Middle East
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