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Shots fired to stop Scud ship

A Scud missile on its launch platform
A Scud missile on its launch platform

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- One dozen Scud missiles were found aboard a ship stopped in the Indian Ocean by a Spanish frigate that had to fire warning shots to keep the unflagged vessel from fleeing, U.S. and Spanish authorities said Tuesday.

The ship -- called the So San -- was under the watchful eyes Tuesday of a number of coalition warships several hundred miles off the coast of Yemen. A senior aide to the Spanish defense minister said he believed it was being escorted to Bahrain, where it was expected to arrive Wednesday morning. (View map)

A senior Bush administration official told CNN the United States is "99 percent sure" the vessel originally was "headed for Yemen."

Asked why the United States and others did not wait until the vessel was closer to Yemen before acting, the official said the choice was between "plausible deniability" or to "slap 'em in the face."

In other words, by intercepting the ship so far away, Yemen's government can deny the allegations. Yemen has played a key role in the U.S.-led war on terrorism.

A team of U.S. ordnance disposal specialists that the Spanish asked for assistance wanted to ensure the explosive material was stabilized before moving the ship, the Spanish defense aide said. At one point the U.S. military was concerned the missiles might be booby-trapped, he said.

Although the ship did not have a flag, the Spanish official said the 21 crew members were North Korean. One U.S. senior official told CNN the ship appeared to be a "stateless vessel" and that there was not much official paperwork on board.

The Spanish official said a Cambodian flag was discovered on board, although he said the Spanish Defense Ministry considers the vessel a "pirate ship" operating illegally.

The ship had been tracked by U.S. intelligence since leaving North Korea several days ago headed for the Arabian Sea region, Pentagon officials said.

Design began on the Scud by the Soviet Union after World War II
Design began on the Scud by the Soviet Union after World War II

U.S. officials stressed the ship did not appear to be headed to Iraq, which used Scuds during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Later models of the ballistic missile have a range of up to 550 miles.

The Spanish official said the frigate Navarra, carrying a crew of 200, warned the vessel to stop, but it accelerated instead. The crew then fired the warning shots. The vessel was not hit.

Once the ship stopped, about a dozen armed Spanish naval inspectors flew over by helicopter and boarded it.

The Spanish official said the American ordnance team was called in after the Spanish inspectors found suspect metal cargo containers beneath an enormous number of cement sacks.

The Spanish official said the first container opened had two entire Scud missiles. The inspectors then found another 10 intact Scuds and parts to make another eight.

The Spanish support ship Patino carrying 150 sailors also took part in the operation. The two Spanish ships have been deployed in that area as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, leading a fleet that includes French and German vessels. U.S. and British warships also have taken part in monitoring the area.

News of the ship's interception came amid increased tension between the United States and North Korea. In October, North Korea acknowledged it was developing nuclear weapons despite its 1994 agreement to freeze its nuclear weapons development program.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld last week called North Korea the "single biggest proliferator of ballistic missiles" and said the communist nation is "a danger to the world."

President Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, earlier this year called North Korea a "merchant for ballistic missile technology" and said Pyongyang was willing to sell the weapons "to just about anybody who will buy."

"The North Koreans have been known to go around with glossy brochures about their ballistic missiles. They're stocking a lot of the world right now," Rice said.

U.S. visitor

Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage was in South Korea for talks Tuesday before traveling to China and Russia for consultations on Iraq.

Armitage told reporters on his arrival in Beijing that the discovery would not change U.S. policy on North Korea. ('No change to policy,' Armitage says)

A senior administration official, however, told CNN that Armitage will attempt to persuade North Korea's "sugar daddy" to "turn the screws tight" on Pyongyang, the official noting that 90 percent of the North's energy is provided by China.

On the other hand, it does not appear the Bush administration intends to take punitive action against Yemen, which has been cooperating in the war on terror. U.S. forces traveled to Yemen this summer to train the country's troops in counterterrorism.

Yemen is "in an area of the world where respect, prestige and protection" come from the barrel of a gun. Yemen was not, in the opinion of the United States, "looking for missiles for terrorism," the same official told CNN.

Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh confirmed in August that it bought Scud-C tactical ballistic missiles (TBMs) from North Korea around 1999 and 2000, according to Jane's Defense Weekly.

Saleh defended the purchase as a legitimate arms transfer because his country was under no arms ban, Jane's said.

According to the weapons research organization, Yemen is reported to have about six Soviet-built Scud-B transporter-erector-launcher vehicles and about 18 Soviet-built 300 kilometer-range Scud-B missiles.

Yemen is the ancestral home of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, where U.S. officials say some al Qaeda leaders may have fled after being pushed out of Afghanistan last year.

The 2000 attack on the USS Cole in the port of Aden killed 17 sailors. The U.S. State Department recently warned Americans to avoid traveling to Yemen because the threat against U.S. interests remains high.

CNN Madrid Bureau Chief Al Goodman and correspondents Barbara Starr, Andrea Koppel and Frank Buckley contributed to this report.

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