- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 21, 2002

BERLIN Spain, Germany and other European nations have taken a leading role in patrolling Middle Eastern shipping lanes on the lookout for al Qaeda terrorists and contraband giving critical support to the stretched U.S. Navy.

The role of America's allies has often been overlooked, but was highlighted last week when Spanish commandos rappelled from helicopters onto the unflagged merchant ship So San and found 15 Scud missiles and warheads from North Korea hidden under cement sacks and bound for Yemen.

The dramatic scene was the first time the so-called "Task Force 150" comprising warships from France, Britain, Germany, Spain and the United States discovered weapons since it began patrolling the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden around the Horn of Africa in November 2001. The flotilla draws resources from more than dozen countries patrolling the region since 1990 to enforce sanctions against Iraq.

Spanish Rear Adm. Juan Moreno commands the flotilla of six warships, which makes contact with dozens of merchant ships every day, checking them against a list of vessels that coalition intelligence services suspect may be involved in illegal activity and questioning the captain about his cargo and destination. If the ships have undeclared cargo, act suspiciously, or are on the coalition list of suspect ships, they are boarded and searched.

"It is one of the ways we have to show our solidarity with the fight the United States is now waging against global terrorism," Adm. Moreno said in a telephone interview from the Spanish frigate Navarra, which checks about 20 to 30 ships a day.

The flotilla has had contact with 16,000 merchant ships, boarding 200, said Lt. Garrett Kasper, a spokesman for the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, to which Adm. Moreno reports.

Four suspects have been detained to date, but Lt. Kasper would not elaborate, citing security.

Despite the outrage of Spain and other allies, the United States allowed the shipment of North Korean missiles to proceed once it determined the destination was Yemen, whose cooperation is needed in the war on terrorism.

All the same, the interception alone should help deter terrorists, said Stephen Saunders, editor of Jane's Fighting Ships.

"It does send a message to people that the ships are actually doing a job there," Mr. Saunders said. "I think it restricts the capability of a terrorist group to move materials around."

Just one-third of the Navy's 300 ships are fully deployed at any given time, another 100 getting ready to go and the last third heading back to port spreading the Navy thin at a time when it is increasing patrols in the Persian Gulf and has commitments elsewhere in the world.

The United States currently has the guided-missile destroyer USS Higgins assigned to Task Force 150, while Britain's contribution is the frigate HMS Cumberland. In addition to the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Germany has also committed the frigate Rhineland-Pfalz, and the French frigate Vendemiaire is currently en route to relieve the frigate Blaison.

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