February 19, 2003

Iraq hiding WMD on ships?
Britain's The Independent today reports that three cargo ships are being tracked by US and British intelligence on suspicion that they might be carrying Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

Citing "authoritative shipping industry sorces," the paper says that the ships are in the 35,000 to 40,000 dwt range and "have been sailing around the world's oceans for the past three months while maintaining radio silence in clear violation of international maritime law."

The vessels left port in late November, just a few days after UN weapons inspectors led by Hans Blix began their search, says the story.

The ships were chartered by a shipping agent based in Egypt and are flying under the flags of three different countries, says the story, which says "the vessels are thought to have spent much of their time in the deep waters of the Indian Ocean, berthing at sea when they need to collect supplies of fuel and food. They have berthed in a handful of Arab countries, including Yemen."

U.S. and British military forces are believed to be reluctant to stop and search the vessels, says the newspaper, for fear that any intervention might result in them being scuttled with resulting catastrophic environmental damage.

According to the newspaper, the ships are thought to have set sail from a country other than Iraq to avoid running the gauntlet of Western naval vessels patrolling the Gulf. "Defense experts believe that, if they are carrying weapons of mass destruction, these could have been smuggled out through Syria or Jordan."

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