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SCUD-Bearing Ship Now Headed to Yemen

Aired December 11, 2002 - 12:10   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: And we now have on the Faris Sanabani of the "Yemen Observer," a newspaper.
Mr. Sanabani, I hope I pronounced your name right. Are you joining us now from Sana?

FARIS SANABANI, "YEMEN OBSERVER": Yes, I'm calling from Sana, that's correct.

BLITZER: Tell us what you know about this ship and its cargo.

SANABANI: OK. From what we understand, first of all, the latest news that is happening right now, we understand that the president of Yemen spoke with the vice president of the United States. Also Colin Powell have called the foreign minister of Yemen, and they discussed the shipment and the ongoing dilemma that goes with it. It was cleared that it was a legal shipment that was done a while ago, and it's for defensive purposes; it's not for offensive purposes, and it's not to a third party. It has nothing to do with rendering the war on terrorism and Al-Qaeda, as they say.

So we understand, and we've been informed by the government that the ship is -- the shipment is coming back to Yemen, that the U.S. has agreed to the shipment coming back to Yemen.

BLITZER: With or without, Faris, those SCUD missiles on board.

SANABANI: That is an interesting question. The SCUD missiles, as we understand, it is on board, and the chemicals they're talking about, it is just fuel for the scuds. So definitely with everything on board.

BLITZER: Faris Sanabani with the "Yemen Observer," giving us the latest information from Sana, the captain of Yemen.

Thanks very much, Faris, for that information.

Spain played a critical role in intercepting this ship, providing the United States with valuable information to go ahead and finish the job.

Our correspondent in Madrid Al Goodman is standing by to tell us about that part of the story -- Al.

AL GOODMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, at the Spain's defense ministry, which is just down the street from me here on Madrid's main boulevard, earlier this day, Wednesday, the Spanish defense minister told CNN the ship this Wednesday, day had been turned over to the U.S. Navy officials in the area. It had been intercepted on Monday by the Spanish Navy acting on tips from U.S. intelligence service.

Now the reason it was taken by the Spanish was because the Spanish frigate is sort of the lead vessel on a multinational flotilla patrolling the waters in that area.

And if this was a legal shipment to Yemen, the Spanish authorities and the U.S. authorities say there certainly was a suspicious nature conducted by the apparent Korean crew aboard the ship. They would not stop when the Spanish frigate at dawn, or at daybreak on Monday, tried to get the ship to stop, tried to show its flag, tried to declare its cargo. There was a chase on the high seas, and this resulted on the Spanish frigate firing shots to slow the ship, which it would not stop, and finally, Spanish commandos on helicopters were able to come over and take over the ship.

That was Monday. They immediately began trying to get beneath these huge sacks of cement, which the captain said was the only thing he was carrying. They when they got down to these metal containers and discovered a couple SCUD muscles. That's when they called in the United States forces, who arrived on Tuesday. There was a more thorough investigation, and the results, according to defense minister, 15 SCUDs, other explosives, also a large quantity of nitric acid, which is a fuel, or propellant, for the SCUD missiles -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Amazing stuff, Al Goodman, our Madrid bureau chief, thanks, Al, very much.

Let's get right over to the White House now, where they're obviously watching and monitoring this situation extremely closely.

Our senior White House correspondent John King is standing by there.

John, what are you hearing?

JOHN KING, CNN SR. WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, you had that correspondent from Yemen moments ago, saying it was his understanding the missiles would be delivered to Yemen. A short time ago, senior officials telling us they too believe that would be the likely outcome. No confirmation that decision has been made, but U.S. officials told us this morning if Yemen could show documentation it indeed had purchased these weapons from North Korea, that the United States would voice its objections, would once again tell the government of Yemen it did not want it doing business with North Korea, that it believed Yemen had no use, strategic use, for SCUD missiles, but senior White House officials were telling us they thought the United States would have no recourse, no option but to allow them to reach their destination.

This story gets more complicated the more we learn about it, but the bottom line, as Barbara Starr said at the top of this show, Yemen, for now, is a critical ally in the war on terrorism. The Bush administration does not need a diplomatic fight right now with Yemen as it continues to search for Al-Qaeda. Clearly, they are frustrated here at the White House. As Barbara reported, the Yemeni government initially denied it was buying SCUD missiles from North Korea, now says this is a legitimate purchase. Senior U.S. officials telling us, for all their frustrations, those missiles are likely to be delivered to Yemen in the end -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And as you noted, John, we heard from that reporter in Sana, the capital of Yemen, that the vice president and the secretary of state both on the phone with the president of Yemen in recent hours to discuss this matter.

Correct me if I'm wrong, John, wasn't the president of Yemen over at the White House not that long ago, and that the relationship between the U.S. and Yemen clearly improving in recent months? .

KING: The relationship has changed dramatically over the past year. President Saleh was here at the White House, and you will recall, Wolf, that when Vice President Cheney was in the Middle East, he took a trip to Yemen, against the advice of the Secret Service. Vice President Cheney made a quick trip over to Yemen to meet with President Saleh as well, a sign that the United States has, in its view, transformed the relationship with the government of Yemen.

Back when the USS Cole was tacked, the United States said Yemen was not doing nearly enough to crack down on Al-Qaeda cells within Yemen, not doing enough crackdown on terrorist movements in and out of Yemen.

Now the United States government says Yemen is cooperating, and allowing CIA operations in Yemen as part of the search for Al Qaeda cells. This proliferation of missile technology outside of that cooperation of the war on terrorism is now a sore spot in the relationship and has been for some time, much as it is in the relationship with Pakistan. White House officials say, these are two difficult relationships that the United States would prefer, and has made clear, that it believes Pakistan, Yemen or any government should not be doing business with North Korea, especially when it comes to missile technology.

But the bottom line is, we are told, senior officials telling us that if Yemen can show the documentation that this is a conventional arms purchase allowed, even if the White House doesn't like it, those missiles are likely to be delivered -- Wolf.

BLITZER: John, and all this is taking place just as the Bush administration is announcing a new so-called strategic doctrine that has a clear-cut warning to nations that might use weapons of mass destruction, what the result would be. Tell our viewers what's going on.

KING: The administration releasing an unclassified summary of that doctrine, and some White House officials saying it is consistent with that doctrine that these SCUD missiles were seized in the first place, because the administration was not sure they might not end up in the hands of a rogue regime or a terrorist group that could use a SCUD missile to deliver a chemical or a biological weapon. The doctrine is essentially this: The Bush administration says it can, and will if necessary, take preemptive action to knock out, destroy weapons of mass destruction, if it sees them in the hands of a terrorist group or a regime that the United States views as a threat. That doctrine also makes clear, that as a deterrent that the United States would use all of its options, including the possibility of nuclear weapons if weapons of mass destruction were used against U.S. troops overseas or any United States ally. It was released publicly as a clear message to the government of Saddam Hussein that if there is a military confrontation with Iraq and chemical or biological weapons are used against U.S. forces, against Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, any U.S. ally, that the United States would respond with overwhelming force and would not rule out using chemical or biological weapons of its own, or even nuclear weapons -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Very interesting stuff. John King, thanks very much. John King, our reporter at the White House.


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