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Scud missiles are ours, says Yemen

A Spanish sailor is lowered from a Spanish helicopter onto the So San
A Spanish sailor is lowered from a Spanish helicopter onto the So San

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start quoteThe boarding party had to be very careful to miss cables and masts on the boat as they boarded.end quote
-- Federico Trillo, Spanish Defence Minister
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U.S. officials say they are "99 percent sure" the ship was bound for Yemen when it was stopped. CNN's Barbara Starr reports (December 11)
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MADRID, Spain (CNN) -- Yemen says Scud missiles found on a North Korean ship were destined for its army, and has made a formal protest over the vessel's seizure to the United States.

A Spanish warship intercepted the ship, carrying 15 hidden Scud missiles, several hundred miles off the coast of Yemen.

Yemen's foreign ministry sent a letter to the U.S. ambassador protesting against the interception of the So San by the Spanish Navy.

The letter said Yemen bought the missiles some time ago for its defence force but at the Pentagon, U.S. officials said that before the seizure on Monday, Yemeni officials had denied the inbound shipment belonged to them.

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

U.S. officials defended the seizure of the missiles as consistent with administration policy of interdicting arms sales if there is a potential the material could be used to make or deliver weapons of mass destruction.

One senior official said the U.S. government would talk to Yemen about its desire to have the missiles delivered, but said the Bush administration saw no strategic reason the Yemeni military would need the missiles.

CNN's John King says the seizure raises a number of prickly foreign policy issues -- including the prospect of a major dispute with a country that in the past has had troubled relations with the United States, but over the past several months has been credited with providing major assistance in the war on terrorism.

Another debate is likely to arise over the grounds for the seizure -- U.S. officials concede there is nothing in international law that allows for such a seizure of conventional weapons that are not banned by any treaties, but they also argue there is nothing that explicitly forbids such a seizure.

Special forces swoop

The So San was intercepted at dawn by the frigate Navarra on December 9 as part of Operation Enduring Freedom after Washington asked Spain to inspect the vessel.

Spanish Defence Minister Federico Trillo said: "When questioned (by radio) the captain said he was carrying cement but he did not allow the navy to board and tried to speed away, forcing the navy to fire warning shots.

"There was no choice but to board the So San using fast ropes from a helicopter. The boarding party had to be very careful to miss cables and masts on the boat as they boarded.

"The specials units team boarded the ship and there were no injuries."

The ship, currently several hundred miles southeast of Yemen, was on Wednesday handed over to U.S. command and is being taken to the Diego Garcia naval base in the Indian Ocean.

Fifteen Scud missiles and 85 containers of unidentified chemical products were found under the vessel's stated cargo of cement, Spain said on Wednesday.

The ship, which had sailed from North Korea, was registered in Cambodia but was travelling without a flag.

A U.S. technical inspection team also boarded the ship to carry out a more detailed search.

The ship, with 21 crew, left North Korea several days ago and was tracked by U.S. intelligence as it sailed towards the Arabian Sea, U.S. officials said. (View map)

The Spanish support ship Patino carrying 150 sailors also took part in the operation.

They were in the area as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, leading a fleet that includes French and German military vessels. U.S. and British warships also have taken part in monitoring the area.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said on Wednesday the discovery was unlikely to affect U.S. policy on North Korea.

"North Korea is one of the major proliferators and it appears that they are busy proliferating again," Armitage said.

Another senior Bush administration official said the situation was of "great concern" and officials were "monitoring the situation closely."

U.S. officials stressed the ship did not appear to be heading to Iraq, which used Scuds during the 1991 Gulf War. The ballistic missile has a range of about 550 miles.

The news comes 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 programme.

North Korea, which has been supported by China in the past, has been branded by Washington as a member of an "axis of evil" with Iraq and Iran.

Yemen was not, in the opinion of the United States, "looking for missiles for terrorism," a senior official said.

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."

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."

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



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