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(LEAD) N. Korea deploys fighter jets to guard rocket launch: officials

All Headlines 16:16 April 02, 2009

(ATTN: RECASTS headline, lead; ADDS background, comments, details throughout)
By Sam Kim

SEOUL, April 2 (Yonhap) -- North Korea has deployed a fleet of MiG-23 fighter jets to apparently guard against any foreign attempt to intercept its rocket which Pyongyang says will carry a satellite into orbit in days, South Korean officials said Thursday.

The officials declined to give the size of the deployment, which comes as Pyongyang warned it will "mercilessly deal deadly blows" at anyone trying to interfere with the launch expected between April 4-8.

South Korea, the U.S. and Japan believe the rocket may be a disguised form of an improved long-range ballistic missile that has yet to be tested and warn of U.N. sanctions should the launch occur.

They have also deployed destroyers -- most with guided missiles -- in the East Sea even though they stress they have no plan to intercept the rocket unless their populations are clearly threatened.

"We are closely monitoring the movement of the jets," a South Korean Air Force commander, who declined to be named, said by phone.

He did not disclose how many or when the MiG-23s were deployed around the Musudan-ri launch pad for fear it would expose South Korea's intelligence capabilities.

Another Air force official, speaking on customary condition of anonymity, said a typical North Korean fighter squadron consists of 12 to 15 aircraft, adding the deployment appears to be a tactical move aimed at safeguarding the launch base.

"It seems to be a form of protection against contingencies," he said.

MiG-23s, developed by the now-defunct Soviet Union, form the backbone of North Korea's air force along with MiG-29s. They can be equipped with anti-air missiles with a range of 20 kilometers.

samkim@yna.co.kr
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