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Thursday, November 09, 2006

Detained Iran-bound North Korea ship baffles India

MUMBAI (Reuters) - India has detained an empty North Korean cargo ship bound for
Iran after it strayed into Indian waters, baffling coast guard officials and police about the purpose of its voyage.

"MV Omrani-II" developed a snag and entered Indian waters on October 29 and was towed to the Mumbai Port where the crew was being questioned by Indian intelligence and customs officials.

"The crew has not been able to explain why they were sailing an empty vessel to Iran," a senior coast guard official told Reuters on condition of anonymity on Thursday.

However a senior official at the Directorate General of Shipping said: "They have told us that because it is a new ship they were testing it. But it is strange that they should need to sail as far as Iran."

Officials said documents for the new 45-meter vessel were in order, although life-saving equipment was found to be deficient.

U.N. Security Council resolution imposing sanctions on
North Korea after its October 9 nuclear test calls on U.N. members to take steps, including "as necessary" the inspection of cargoes to and from North Korea to prevent illicit trafficking in nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.

But Indian officials said they were not acting at the behest of the U.N. but simply because a suspicious ship had entered Indian waters.

"The investigations are part of standard procedures that are followed when a ship strays into our waters," A. Banerjee, a top shipping official told Reuters.

In 1999, a North Korean ship was seized off western India after a search revealed it was carrying missile components, metal casings and technical manuals to Pakistan. The ship's manifest had listed sugar and water purification equipment.

Indian officials said they wanted to ensure that the ship was not hiding any contraband or being used to ferry material related to North Korea or Iran's nuclear programs. Pyongyang said last month that it had tested a nuclear device, while Iran says it is enriching its uranium to build nuclear power plants, rejecting Western concerns that it was planning to build a bomb.

Military experts say Iranian missile technology is partly based on modified versions of equipment from other countries, such as North Korea.

Along with Libya, the three countries are believed to have bought nuclear parts and know-how from the former head of Pakistan's nuclear program, A.Q. Khan.
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