- The Washington Times - Friday, December 13, 2002

The United States and Yemen yesterday blamed each other for this week's incident in which U.S. forces seized and then released a shipment of North Korean Scud missiles bound for Yemen.

The Bush administration also apologized to Spain, which first stopped the North Korean ship in the Arabian Sea and held it until the Americans arrived.

The ship contained 15 North Korean-made missiles, hidden under bags of concrete, that Yemen had purchased.

In a behind-the-scenes diplomatic fight yesterday, the Yemeni government accused the United States of improperly seizing the ship, even though it knew where the cargo was going.

U.S. officials acknowledged they had "fairly persuasive evidence" the ship was destined for Yemen as soon as it left the North Korean port of Nampo in late November.

But the U.S. officials said earlier denials by Yemen that it was to receive the missiles left them with no other option but to stop the vessel heading to a very "sensitive" region.

"One of the options was approaching the Yemenis beforehand, but then something happened," an administration official said.

"On December 2, The Washington Times ran a story about the shipment, in which a Yemeni diplomat categorically denied it was coming their way," the official said.

Although there was "no official communication" between the two governments after the article was published, the official said there were conversations "on a working level," which "re-enforced the notion in the U.S. government that the Yemenis are not going to acknowledge that this shipment was theirs."

The Times' Dec. 2 story quoted U.S. intelligence officials as saying the Scuds were indeed going to Yemen.

But when contacted by a reporter, Yahya Alshawkani, a spokesman for the Yemeni Embassy in Washington, said: "We deny the credibility of any such report, that there is a second [missile] shipment."

He insisted that the only shipment from North Korea was made earlier this year.

Yesterday, Mr. Alshawkani said he actually meant there was no new purchase of missiles. That was also what his government told the Bush administration.

The ship, So San, which was carrying 15 Scud missiles, 15 conventional warheads and 85 drums of unidentified chemicals, was allowed to reach its destination on Wednesday.

Washington gave the go-ahead after Yemen promised the delivery would go no farther and it would not purchase arms from Pyongyang again.

The White House said the transfer, which Yemen characterized as the last in a series contracted for in 1999, violates no international laws or regulations.

The decision to hide the missiles under bags of concrete was made by the North Koreans, the U.S. official said.

Meanwhile, "The Pentagon's number two, Paul Wolfowitz, called Defense Minister Federico Trillo Wednesday to thank and praise Spain for the operation and to apologize for what could seem an absurd situation," a Spanish ministry of defense spokesman said.

Spanish Foreign Minister Ana Palacio, a staunch U.S. supporter, backed the decision to stop the ship.

"Once all the details were checked and the origin, destination and buyers were verified, and Yemen guaranteed that these missiles were not going to pass into terrorist hands, we were obliged to let the ship follow its course," Mr. Palacio told state radio. "And that is what the United States has done in this case."

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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