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US, Spain caught in Libya missile mixup
By Tito Drago

MADRID - The US government needs to explain why the missile shipment on a vessel intercepted a year ago on the high seas by the Spanish navy ended up in Libya, a spokesman from Spain's Defense Ministry said this week.

The official was referring to declarations made by sources from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to the Madrid daily El Mundo that claim 15 complete Scud missiles, a set of conventional warheads and 85 containers of chemical products - some 20 holding nitric acid - were ultimately delivered to Libya under a Washington decision.

The episode began on December 5, 2002, when US intelligence services informed Madrid about the route of a freighter named So San, which they suspected of trafficking weapons and which was, at the time, crossing a zone under Spain's authority in the Indian Ocean. Four days later, a Spanish frigate and warship intercepted the So San after ordering the captain to halt and firing warning shots. The vessel was found to be sailing under the Cambodian flag.

The weapons and chemicals came from North Korea and did not appear on the ship's manifest, which showed only that the merchant vessel was carrying bags of cement. After intercepting the freighter, Spain then handed the ship over to the US Navy. Immediate official explanations out of Washington and Madrid said the missiles might have been headed for the al-Qaeda network, which the US government holds responsible for the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. However, just hours later, the US administration took Spain by surprise by turning the So San over to Yemen, explaining that the cargo was actually a legal shipment of weapons purchased from North Korea by the Yemini government.

The handover was preceded by a telephone conversation between US Vice President Dick Cheney and Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. When that conversation was made public, the White House justified the move by calling Yemen a friendly nation. So what initially came off as a brilliant Spanish military operation to prevent illegal trade in weapons of mass destruction was reduced to a suspected manipulation directed from Washington, with Madrid in the role of receiving and carrying out orders that were not very clear in their purpose.

The NATO sources cited in El Mundo said that at the time the shipment was intercepted, the United States was secretly negotiating the possibility that Libya would accept Saddam Hussein, then still president of Iraq, in exile. And Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, who played the role of go-between during the Gulf War in 1991 by assisting in Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait, had hopes of gaining access to the weapons.

"Gaddafi wanted the missiles and Yemen acted as intermediary. In the context of gestures with Libya, it was decided to look the other way, given that there was no international regulation that impeded it," said the newspaper, citing sources from the Pentagon.

Today, as it was a year ago, Madrid's reaction of disappointment regarding the United States' handling of the shipment was immediate, but not very explicit, because Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar continues to be a staunch, unconditional supporter of the policies of his US counterpart, President George W Bush.

As a result, the opposition United Left (IU) has announced that it will petition Defense Minister Federico Trillo to inform parliament about the country's participation, "past and present", in relation to the case of the weapons shipment. Madrid's handling of the issue "is one more demonstration of [Aznar's] erratic foreign policy and his troubling submission and total dependence on the policy marked by the US," IU general coordinator Gaspar Llamazares said. "The IU is highly concerned that Spain is extending political and commercial ties to a country that does not provide any democratic guarantees," such as Libya, he added.

Neither the Spanish government nor the opposition and civil-society organizations categorize the Gaddafi regime as terrorist and they agree on the need to facilitate his integration into the international community. In fact, Spain has not drawn up a list of countries it considers terrorist, noted a Foreign Ministry spokesperson, but the United States has, and Libya, which figures on that list, is subject to a commercial and military embargo. No US company is authorized to sell weapons to Libya directly or indirectly, nor to facilitate the delivery of arms.

When the United Nations Security Council lifted sanctions against Libya, then-US ambassador James Cunningham abstained from the vote, stating that Washington did not want to give the idea that it believed Libya had done an about-face, because, said the ambassador, the country continued to try to obtain weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles. But things appear to have changed radically, given that the weapons shipment intercepted by Spain, and which ended up in Libya, includes such arms.

(Inter Press Service)
Dec 12, 2003

WMD transport targeted on high seas (Sep 12, '03)

Pyongyang Watch: Scuds across the sea
(Dec 12, '02)


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