Pentagon: North Korean Freighter Not Challenged
WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Pentagon acknowledged today that a North Korean freighter believed to be carrying Scud-C missiles for Iran or Syria has reached an Iranian port despite the intention of U.S. warships to find and challenge the vessel.
″We did not encounter the ship. I can’t tell you why,″ Defense Department spokesman Pete Williams told reporters. ″I can’t say precisely why we didn’t see it all the time.″
Williams argued that the search for the Dae Hung Ho was not the ″highest priority″ for the U.S. Navy vessels in the region, since it apparently was not headed for Iraq in defiance of the United Nations embargo.
The United States is authorized by international law and by U.N. sanctions against Iraq to intercept shipping that may be destined for Iraq or for a port where goods might be transhipped to Iraq.
But U.S. officials say they have little authority to divert a vessel containing cargo bound for Iran and perhaps Syria.
Williams said U.S. officials ″don’t know for certain″ what cargo the ship is carrying, nor would he say whether it had begun to unload any cargo.
However, other officials have said they believe the ship is carrying medium-range missiles, which would fuel even further the arms race in the region.
A senior Pentagon source said the North Korean vessel is ″just sitting″ in waters outside the southern Iranian port of Bandar Abbas located near the Strait of Hormuz and hadn’t begun to unload its cargo.
The ship apparently hugged the coastline off the strategic Strait of Hormuz to reach the southern Iranian port, Williams said.
The spokesman said the destroyer USS Ingersoll earlier today challenged a second freighter, the Iranian-flagged Iran Salaam, which is in the Arabian Sea. He said it too has been monitored by the U.S. fleet because of its suspicious contents.
The ship was hailed, declared its cargo to be steel and drilling materials, and that it also was headed for Bandar Abbas, Williams said.
If either ship had sailed toward Iraq, he said, the U.S. Navy would have ″taken other action,″ Williams insisted.
He asserted that the Pentagon need not be embarrassed by the ability of the North Korean vessel to elude the U.S. Navy’s 22 ships in the region, since the Navy wasn’t focused on blocking its movement to Iran.
Pressed to explain why no action was taken against the Dae Hung Ho, Williams said there is no ″embargo on ships to Iran. ... The maritime intercept operation is focused on Iraq.″
″We were aware of the ship, curious about where it was going, but there was a limit to what we could have done,″ Williams said.
Iran’s official press has warned that any attempt to block passage of the ship would be an act of piracy.
An administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the United States has made diplomatic contact with North Korea, Iran and Syria to shed light on what is happening, and to underscore the U.S. position against missile proliferation in the region.
″They’re aware of our position,″ the official said, noting that shipment of the missiles ″flies in the face of everything″ North Korea has said in recent weeks about not engaging in weapons proliferation.
Williams said U.S. naval vessels, had they encountered the ship prior to its reaching Bandar Abbas, would at least have challenged its movements and queried its contents.
″We would have hailed it,″ he said.
That stands in contrast to statements from Defense Department officials that they were prepared to intercept the vessel, should President Bush give the order to do so.
Williams contended that reports quoting unidentified sources had falsely portrayed the administration’s concern about the matter.
″My concern is, all these anonymous sources had cranked this up to a higher priority″ than it actually was for the administration, he said.
But Williams, questioned about repeated comments from administration officials on the gravity of such shipments, acknowledged that few options existed.
″There are a lot of arms sales that go on in the world that we don’t like,″ he said.
The vessel arrived in the port on Monday, the Pentagon source said.
On Monday, U.S. officials adopted a low profile on the matter, with President Bush saying he’d discussed the issue with National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft but had ″nothing to say publicly on that.″
The USS Eisenhower carrier battle group has moved to the Atlantic. That leaves 13 warships in the Mediterranean, composed of frigates, destroyers and cruisers, as well as five amphibious ships and other support ships. Some 25 other warships led by the USS America carrier battle group are in the Red Sea, North Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf.
Since U.N. economic sanctions were imposed against Iraq after its August 1990 invasion of Kuwait, the Pentagon says the Navy has intercepted more than 13,000 ships in the region.