Korean fighters 'tried to take US crew hostage'

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The Independent Online

A close encounter between an American surveillance aircraft and North Korean fighter jets last weekend was an effort by North Korea to take the 15-member crew hostage, according to US defence officials.

A close encounter between an American surveillance aircraft and North Korean fighter jets last weekend was an effort by North Korea to take the 15-member crew hostage, according to US defence officials.

In an incident which could have worsened the crisis over Pyongyang's nuclear activities still further, the North Korean pilots used hand signals to instruct the crew of the American aircraft to follow their lead last Sunday. The apparent intention was to force the US spy plane to land on North Korean soil, the officials told The New York Times. "Clearly, it appears their intention to divert the aircraft to North Korea, and take it hostage," one official said.

The spy plane, an RC-135S Cobra Ball, was shadowed for some 20 minutes by two MIG-29s and two MIG-23s, about 150 miles of the coast. The American crew ignored the signals and returned to their own base in Japan. But their decision to disobey might easily have provoked the North Koreans to open fire, in the view of the US.

North Korea signalled yesterday that it is ready to spurn a request by George Bush that it join multilateral talks to try to ease tensions over its nuclear weapons ambitions, and will instead insist on tackling the issue with the US alone.

The message, delivered in a commentary in a state-run newspaper, is likely to ratchet up tensions in the region further. It came as Pyongyang declared an exclusion zone in the Sea of Japan until Tuesday, apparently in preparation for the testing of a conventional missile. President Bush asserted last week that the crisis triggered by its resumption of nuclear weapons activities should be treated as a regional issue and should be handled jointly by neighbouring countries, including South Korea, China, Russia and Japan. It is clear, however, that Pyongyang hopes for dialogue only with Washington in the hope of winning economic concessions.

"Through 'multilateral talks' the US seeks to internationalise the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula, evade its responsibility for spawning it and make its solution more difficult," the newspaper, Minju Joson said. "If the US truly wants the peaceful settlement of the nuclear issue, it should drop its absurd assertions and immediately opt for the direct talks with the (North)".

North Korea has ordered all shipping out of the exclusion area between its coast and Japan pending its expected missile test. "Such closures are typically a precursor to a missile launch,'' said a Pentagon spokesman. "While we are not alarmed by this, we don't see how a launch at this time would be particularly helpful, given the increased level of tensions North Korea has already caused."

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