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Thursday, 12 December, 2002, 14:25 GMT
Scud affair draws US apology
Spanish sailors aboard frigate during interception
A Spanish frigate fired warning shots
The United States has apologised to Spain over the short-lived seizure of Scud missiles en route to Yemen - carried out by the Spanish navy acting on a US tip-off.

A spokesman for the Spanish defence ministry said Madrid's position on the incident was one of surprise "and not much else".

Scud missiles among sacks of cement
Thousands of sacks of cement covered the weapons

US Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz discussed the incident with Spanish Defence Minister Federico Trillo by phone on Wednesday night.

"He congratulated him for the operation, apologised for how it all turned out and explained the White House statement," said the Spanish spokesman, Alberto Martinez Arias.

But an unnamed Spanish defence ministry official quoted by the daily El Pais said "the Spanish military forces risked their lives, and so far we don't know why".

Yemen awaits Scuds

The intercepted North Korean ship was allowed to continue its journey after Yemen assured the US that the 15 Scud missiles found on board were for defensive purposes only.

Mr Martinez Arias denied any tension with US military officials over the incident, and said Spain regarded its mission as a success.

A senior Yemeni Government official quoted by Reuters news agency on Thursday said the ship was now expected to arrive at a Yemeni port "any time, within the next 48 hours".

"We signed a contract with North Korea to buy this shipment in 1999 and we have no intention to purchase any other shipment," he said.

Japan concerned

Japan has complained to Yemen about the Scud deal, saying North Korea's missile exports threaten the world, AFP news agency reports.

A senior Japanese foreign ministry official, Hiroyasu Ando, told the Yemeni ambassador that Japan paid "full attention to exports and imports of weapons" when considering official aid for developing countries.

The vessel and its crew were detained for two days, after being intercepted by Spanish warships in the Arabian Sea.

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.

Hidden cargo

Yemeni Foreign Minister Abubakr al-Qirbi told the Arab satellite TV channel al-Jazeera he was "puzzled" that the Scuds were hidden under sacks of cement on the ship.

Spanish Marines board the So San
Troops were lowered onto the ship from a helicopter

"I believe that the (North) Koreans may have the answer," he said.

The US has said it will also seek to find out why the missiles had been hidden and why the So San was not flying a flag of identification.

Washington's decision to release the ship is seen as a sign of its desire to maintain reasonable relations with Yemen - a country it has been cultivating as a regional ally in its war on terrorism.

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

Mr Fleischer said US concerns that the cargo was being taken to a "potential terrorist nation" had proved unfounded. He did not specify which nation he was referring to.

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

Regional ally

The Scuds were purchased at a time of border tension between Yemen and its neighbours Saudi Arabia and Eritrea. Both disputes were later resolved.

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

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.

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

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"
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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