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Yugoslav Ship Allegedly Carrying Rocket Fuel to Iraq Intercepted

By Daniel Williams and Nicholas Wood

Earlier this month, a ship carrying 14 containers of chemical pellets sat in the Yugoslav military port of Tivat, preparing for a voyage. U.S. officials believed that the cargo was solid rocket fuel and bound for Iraq, in violation of a U.N. ban on arms deliveries.

Rather than tell the government of Yugoslavia, which receives $135 million in annual aid from Washington, mistrustful U.S. officials called on neighboring Croatia to intercept the ship, the Boka Star, at sea. “We were uncertain what the response of the Yugoslavs would be if we had asked them,” said a senior U.S. official.

The Croatians seized the vessel Saturday in the Adriatic Sea. Croatian and U.S. officials say they’ve determined that the cargo was in fact solid rocket fuel. It was labeled “active charcoal.”

The incident was one of a series of recent high-profile discoveries of suspected weapons-related products and technology illegally bound for Iraq -- at a time when the United States is preparing for possible war with that country. The revelations threw light on Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s continuing ability to evade U.N. restrictions and import military goods and expertise, even from a country such as Yugoslavia that’s nominally friendly to Washington.

The Yugoslav government on Thursday formally acknowledged illegal military sales to Iraq. “These violations concerned the repair and return of Iraqi jet engines for MiG-21 and MiG-23 fighter jets and providing certain services in military-technical cooperation,” a government statement said. It promised to clamp down on future sales.

That admission appeared to refer to claims that U.S. officials made this month after NATO peacekeepers in Bosnia raided a state-owned military firm named Orao. Documents seized there indicated that Orao and Yugoimport, a Yugoslav government-run arms trading company, have been helping Iraq refurbish its antiquated air force. Iraq has used Yugoslav technicians to upgrade its aircraft.

But Western officials contend that the relationship is deeper. A University of Belgrade professor with training in missile technology has acknowledged visiting Baghdad, the Iraqi capital, in recent months. The United States suspects that technology that Yugoslavia sold to Libya ultimately was destined for Iraq and intended to provide the seeds to convert trainer jets into guided cruise missiles. Such a weapon could avoid U.S. anti-missile systems and reach American allies in the Persian Gulf and Israel.

The news is potentially bad for Yugoslavia’s efforts to improve its economy and foster closer relations with Western countries. It comes as the U.S. Congress is considering a measure to normalize Yugoslavia’s trade relations with the United States, and when the United States is promoting Yugoslavia for membership in the Partnership for Peace program of the NATO alliance.

The fact that the Boka Star passed through Tivat, a military port, indicated that the transactions weren’t merely private deals but linked with the Yugoslav government and army.

The army is the country’s most prestigious institution, according to polls, and its commander in chief, President Vojislav Kostunica, is the country’s most popular politician. Kostunica has distanced himself from the Iraq traffic, saying he knew nothing, and in any case, the transfers were of low-technology varieties and not “state-of-the-art” sales.