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US to Dispatch Bomber Force to Pacific Island - 2003-03-04

The United States is dispatching a bomber force to the Pacific island, Guam, in connection with the stand-off with North Korea. But defense officials deny the move is linked to what they call a provocative incident Sunday, involving the intercept by North Korean jets of a U.S. reconnaissance plane.

A senior Pentagon official said 24 U.S. bombers placed on standby last month for possible deployment to Guam have now been ordered to make the move.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the decision to deploy the 12 B-52 and 12 B-1 bombers was made last Friday.

It is not known if the aircraft have departed yet for the Pacific island.

The move is viewed by Pentagon officials as a warning to North Korea not to underestimate U.S. military capabilities at a time when the Pentagon is generally focused on a possible war with Iraq.

But the senior official tells VOA repositioning the bombers is not related to Sunday's incident in which four North Korean fighters intercepted a U.S. reconnaissance plane over the Sea of Japan more than 200 kilometers off the North Korean coast.

The warplanes closed to within 15 meters and at least one jet locked on the American aircraft with its targeting radar, but did not open fire.

Pentagon officials have called that incident hostile while a White House spokesman has labeled it provocative and reckless.

Still, defense sources are downplaying suggestions the United States may provide its own fighter escorts for future surveillance flights off North Korea.

One Pentagon source tells VOA such a move is an option under consideration, but another said it could escalate a situation which the Bush administration has been trying to resolve diplomatically. The source was referring to tensions stirred by Pyongyang's resumption of its controversial nuclear weapons program.

It was concern about that nuclear program that prompted the Pentagon last month to say it was considering new moves to bolster U.S. defenses in the Pacific as a warning to North Korea.

Those moves included placing 12 B-52 and 12 B-1 bombers on standby for possible deployment to Guam where they could be then called upon to deploy to the Korean Peninsula.