South Korean lines on high alert

South Korean lines on high alert

South Korea put its ocean carriers on high alert over the weekend after an Islamic militant group threatened to destroy vessels carrying U.S. military goods in the Middle East, news reports and intelligence officials said.

Acting under advice from the government's National Intelligence Service (NIS), the Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Ministry sent out warning letters to eight local shipping firms, including Hanjin, Shipping, urging them to strengthen security precautions and limit crewmembers from going ashore at Middle Eastern ports.

The NIS said it found an Arabic language Web site carrying a threat to "attack ships carrying strategic materials for the U.S. military". It cited a South Korean shipping company and eight other shipping firms from the U.S., the Netherlands and Hong Kong as its targets, news reports said.

"We have told the Maritime and Fisheries Ministry, maritime police and other related agencies to take measures to guard against terrorism," a spokesman for the intelligence agency said on condition of anonymity.

Hanjin Shipping, however, said it did not know of any South Korean ships involved in transporting U.S. military equipment to Iraq. A company official said South Korean shipping firms had tightened security procedures to meet a new anti-terrorism code that came into effect July 1. ``But we have not taken any additional measures because of the warning from the National Intelligence Agency,'' he said.

But, the Iraqi Web site that was reported to have carried the threat, said it was not aware of the threat and denied carrying any such warning against shipping.

South Korean vessels operating in the Persian Gulf were put on high alert, reportedly bolstering patrols and increasing radar surveillance.

The NIS also requested help from Indonesia and Hong Kong, where ships bound for the Gulf often make port calls, to help enhance security.

Other steps included appealing to Middle Eastern governments to promptly pass on intelligence that indicated possible attacks on South Korea vessels.

Seoul plans to start sending 3000 soldiers to the Kurdish region of northeastern Iraq in August. They will be joined there by about 600 military medics and engineers already operating in the country's south.

The deployment will make South Korea the biggest coalition partner after the U.S. and Britain.