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US Receives Yemeni Assurances, Releases Missile Shipment - 2002-12-11

U.S. officials are allowing a North Korean ship carrying Scud missiles to continue on its way to Yemen. The Bush Administration says Yemen has given assurances that the weapons will not be transferred to anyone else.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer says the ship was released after Secretary of State Colin Powell and Vice President Dick Cheney discussed the missile shipment with Yemeni authorities.

"There is 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 and therefore the merchant vessel is being released," he said.

Mr. Fleischer says Yemeni authorities have given Washington assurances that the missiles, which were hidden in a shipment of cement, are for defensive purposes and are not intended for anyone else.

"Yemen has given the United States assurances that it will not transfer these missiles to anyone," he said.

Mr. Fleischer says Yemen understands the U.S. commitment to "making certain that terrorist regimes in the area do not receive weapons."

The Spanish navy stopped the ship in the Arabian Sea Monday after U.S. officials tracked it from North Korea because, Mr. Fleischer says, they were concerned that the short- to medium-range missiles might be headed to states that sponsor terrorism.

"We became aware of the departure of a ship from North Korea that was carrying what we believed to be weapons of concern. This was a non-flagged vessel, which gave us further concern," he said. "And the vessel was destined for Yemen. We had a concern about what was on it. We had a concern before ascertaining indeed that it was going to Yemen that it may have been heading for a potential terrorist nation."

U.S. and South Korean officials discussed the missile sale in Seoul Wednesday. President Bush has accused the government in Pyongyang of being part of an "axis of evil" that could help terrorists acquire weapons of mass destruction.

Mr. Fleischer says U.S. concerns about North Korean weapons do not justify delaying a legal arms shipment to Yemen.

"As much as we do not like what North Korea does around the world, the United States still has an obligation to follow international law and not let the fact that we believe that North Korea is a proliferator and presents dangerous problems to the United States in other regards from telling us that we have a right to violate international law. We do not," he said. "And we still have to obey international law so that we are in a stronger position to enforce international law on nations like North Korea."

Mr. Fleischer dismissed reports that Yemen's purchase of missiles from North Korea violated an agreement with the United States, saying there had been no decision on when such an agreement might begin.