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Worldwide Port Officials Discuss Terrorism in South Africa

An international conference on ports and harbors has ended in South Africa. A key item on the agenda was improving security at world harbors in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.

Ordinarily, a meeting of worldwide port officials might go relatively unnoticed by people with no connection to the ports industry. But this is the first time the International Association of Ports and Harbors has met since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

South African Police Superintendent Nico du Plessis, who specializes in border security, said the terrorist attacks highlighted the vulnerability of world harbors, and put improving port security firmly on the agenda.

"I think it's definitely more to the forefront that the ports are vulnerable to attack as well," explained du Plessis. "It's easy to attack a port due to its vulnerability. And that security is definitely needed to ensure that ports are safe avenues for world trade to take place in."

Superintendent du Plessis, who spoke at the conference, says ports are vulnerable in two ways. They could be targets of terrorist attacks themselves. Or they could become a conduit for explosives or weapons of mass destruction to be used in terrorist attacks elsewhere.

Superintendent du Plessis and other security experts say a successful attack on a major international port or harbor could ripple through the worldwide shipping industry, disrupting trade in crucial goods and affecting the global economy.

Ports are also seen as a relatively weak link in many countries' border controls, which could allow the smuggling of terrorist materials. Most ocean-borne cargo nowadays travels in sealed containers. Many countries, especially in the developing world, lack the sophisticated X-ray equipment and other devices that can scan containers for illegal contents. So they rely on physical inspection. But large ports cannot inspect every container without seriously slowing down the flow of cargo.

So the challenge is to improve worldwide port security without bringing the international shipping industry to a halt.

This week's meeting in the South African port city of Durban brought together public port authorities, private port operators and government regulatory agencies, as well as a host of security experts, to try to solve that dilemma.

Superintendent du Plessis said South Africa has set up a special interdepartmental task force to increase security at the country's heavily used harbors. He urged delegates from other countries to integrate their security efforts.

"For instance, this interdepartmental working group of ours consists of the national ports authority, the police, the Navy, customs, our intelligence community and the national department of transport," he said. "So yes, it must be a multi-agency approach if you want to make a success of it."

But security was not the only thing on the agenda at the world port conference. The 750 delegates also discussed industry trends and technical advances, as well as the role of the shipping industry in regional development.

The International Association of Ports and Harbors meets every two years. The next World Ports Conference is scheduled for Shanghai, China in 2005.