Yemen had protested the seizure, saying that it paid for the weapons and intended them to be used by its armed forces.
“The shipment is part of contracts signed some time ago. It belongs to the Yemeni government and its army and meant for defensive purposes,” Yemeni Foreign Minister Abubakr al-Qirbi said, according to news reports.
The U.S. decided mid-day Wednesday to release the ship.
“There is no clear authority to seize the vessel … and so [it] is being released,” White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.
Spanish navy ships patrolling the Arabian Sea stopped and searched the vessel on Tuesday and then turned the ship, its crew and its cargo over to the U.S. Navy.
U.S. officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Colin Powell, reportedly voiced displeasure over the apparent transaction between Yemen, a U.S. Middle East ally, and North Korea — a country that President Bush said was a member of an “axis of evil.”
The United States and Yemen have enjoyed cooperative relations since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and have apparently cooperated in a crackdown on suspected members of al-Qaida in the country.
Yemen has reportedly been the site of terrorist activities in recent years, including the Oct. 12, 2000 attack of the U.S. Navy ship USS Cole. The Cole was broadsided by a speedboat loaded with explosives as it took on fuel in the port of Aden. Seventeen U.S. sailors were killed in the attack.
“Yemen has been a friend and partner in the global war on terrorism” White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Wednesday.
The New York Times reported that U.S. intelligence agencies tracked the seized vessel from the time it left North Korea until it was stopped some 600 miles from Yemen.
The seizure of the missiles seemed to renew U.S. concerns about North Korea as a global disseminator of weapons. A U.S. official told the Associated Press early Wednesday that Yemen had broken an informal agreement it had made not to buy weapons from North Korea.
North Korea and Yemen have not joined international agreements that call for the limiting of the proliferation of weapons, such as the Missile Technology Control Regime, which includes more than 30 member states.
The always tenuous relationship between the U.S. and North Korea was further strained two months ago when North Korea admitted that it has an ongoing nuclear weapons program.
Spanish Defense Minister Federico Trillo said that Spain had the right to stop the vessel because it was sailing under no flag and that such a vessel is viewed as a “pirate ship.” Trillo told the AP that Spanish navy ships fired warning blasts of machine gun fire over the North Korean ship’s bow because it refused to stop. Spanish commandos then boarded the vessel by rappelling from a helicopter.
North Korea has not commented on the situation except to assert in its state-run newspaper that the U.S. seeks world supremacy and that every nation has the right to defend itself.