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Spain: U.S. apologises over Scud ship

cement sacks
The missiles were concealed beneath sacks of cement

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Yemeni officials claim the missiles hidden in a cargo of concrete are the last of an order from North Korea. CNN's Kris Osborn reports (December 11)
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Spanish defense ministry officials say the operation began with a tip last Thursday from U.S. intelligence. CNN's Al Goodman reports (December 11)
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Do you agree with the decision to return seized Scuds to Yemen?


MADRID, Spain (CNN) -- Spanish Defense Minister Federico Trillo got an "apology" call from U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz for Spain's involvement in the seizure of a cargo ship carrying North Korean scud missiles bound for Yemen, a senior aide to Trillo told CNN Thursday.

Wolfowitz "apologized for the result of this operation," the defense aide told CNN, but told Trillo that the United States must respect the arms deal between Yemen and North Korea.

In the phone call at about 10:30 p.m. (4:30 p.m. ET) Wednesday, Wolfowitz also congratulated the Spanish Navy for a job well done in intercepting the ship on December 9.

U.S. and Spanish forces seized the freighter So San in the Indian Ocean Monday about 600 miles south of Yemen. (View map)

Yemeni officials protested the seizure, and U.S. officials released the vessel after receiving assurances that the missiles would not be transferred to a third party.

Yemen says it expects the ship to arrive at a Yemeni port within the next 48 hours.

Fifteen Scud missiles, some of which can hit targets up to 400 miles (640 kilometers) away, were concealed beneath sacks of cement aboard the ship, which U.S. intelligence had tracked from a port in North Korea. Yemeni Foreign Minister Abubakr Al-Qirbi said the concealment was a North Korean decision, not his government's.

A senior official told CNN the Bush administration made clear it did not believe Yemen had any strategic need for such weapons, and also vehemently protested any weapons deals involving North Korea.

Yemen has promised not to buy weapons from the North Koreans but said these missiles were purchased before that promise was made.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Wednesday there was no provision under international law prohibiting Yemen from accepting delivery of missiles from North Korea.

"While there is authority to stop and search, in this instance there is no clear authority to seize the shipment of Scud missiles from North Korea to Yemen. Therefore, the merchant vessel is being released," he said. (The law on sea searches)

One administration official said the decision to release the vessel was "a function of the whole new bilateral relationship and the new security relationship we have with the Yemenis."

"We have a whole new cooperation with the Yemenis, and we want to continue that," this official said.

Yemen has cooperated with the U.S.-led war on terror, but Washington has been concerned about the presence of al Qaeda elements in the ancestral homeland of Osama bin Laden.

A Spanish Defense Ministry official had called the decision to release the vessel "strange" after its sailors took the lead in the operation. (Full story)

A Defense Ministry aide said the boarding party found a 25-page declaration of cargo aboard that did not list Yemen as a destination and did not list Scud missiles as among its cargo. The ship's manifest mentioned only 2,000 tons of cement destined for Djibouti, the official said.

Spanish vessels were in the area as part of a fleet that includes French and German military vessels. U.S. and British warships also have taken part in monitoring that area. U.S authorities arrived on the scene after the interception, and an explosives ordnance disposal team boarded the ship.

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar has a working lunch December 18 at the White House with President Bush. This meeting was scheduled before the missile ship incident. Aznar is due to arrive in Washington December 17.

-- CNN correspondents John King, Barbara Starr, Al Goodman, Andrea Koppel and Frank Buckley contributed to this report.

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