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Somebody attacked the Cheonan, but we're not saying who

More than three months after the sinking of the Cheonan, the U.N. Security Council reached agreement today on a statement deploring and condemning the March 26 attack that sank the South Korean naval vessel, but not directly blaming North Korea.

Today's pact ended months of intensive efforts by South Korea to persuade North Korea's chief ally, China, to back a council statement condemning its northern neighbor for launching a torpedo attack against the Cheonan, killing 46 South Korean seamen. Last month, South Korea sent a delegation of top army, naval, and intelligence officials to present the council with evidence proving the Cheonan was cut in half by a North Korean submarine.

The United States, France, and other council members said the South Korean evidence represented "overwhelming" proof that North Korea bore responsibility for the attack. But in the end, China agreed only to allow a highly ambiguous statement that hints at North Korean responsibility but shields Pyongyang from charges that it carried out an act of war.

The deal was struck during a morning meeting of the Security Council's five permanent members -- the United States, Britain, China, France, and Russia --  together with Japan and North Korea. The United States formally distributed the statement to the full 15-nation council this afternoon.

The statement -- which will likely be approved as early as tomorrow -- "condemns that attack which led to the sinking of the Cheonan" and "underscores the importance of preventing further such attacks." The council "expresses its deep concern" over the findings of a South Korean led investigation that "concluded" North Korea "was responsible for the sinking of the Cheonan." But it also "took note from the other relevant parties including from [North Korea], which has stated that it had nothing to do with the incident."

A Western diplomat involved in the negotiations said the statement provided more than a hint of North Korean responsibility, noting that it repeatedly uses the word "attack" to describe the sinking of the Cheonan, making it clear that it wasn't brought down by an internal explosion or a mechanical failure. The official also noted that the statement calls for "full adherence" to the Korean Armistice Agreement, implying that the attack constitutes a violation by North Korea of that accord.

Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said after the meeting that the proposed statement, if passed, "would send a unified message that the Security Council condemns the attack." She said the "statement needs no interpretation; it's very clear."

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