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Australia Leads Exercises Aimed at Intercepting WMDs - 2003-09-12

Australia is leading a first of its kind maritime exercise in the Coral Sea coast aimed at intercepting shipments of weapons of mass destruction. Defense officials say the drill will involve 800 military and law enforcement personnel from Australia, the United States, France and Japan. This team is charged with combating suspected weapons trade between rogue states and terrorists.

Operation Pacific Protector is the first of 10 air, ground and sea exercises planned by the 11 nations who are part of the Proliferation Security Initiative.

President Bush set up the initiative earlier this year as international fears grew that rogue states, such as North Korea, could be shipping chemical, biological and nuclear weapons to terrorist groups throughout the world.

During the first exercise, a Japanese coast guard crew will board a Japanese merchant ship with sea and aerial backup from Australian, U.S. and French units. Australian officials say the exercise is practice for intercepting and searching seagoing vessels suspected of trafficking weapons of mass destruction.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer says it will be a realistic drill.

"It will simulate interdiction of a cargo vessel suspected of carrying weapons of mass destruction and will include aerial search and surveillance, maritime pursuit and boarding of the vessel," he said.

Members of the Proliferation Security Initiative insist the organization is not targeting specific nations, although many observers believe that Iran, Libya and North Korea are clearly within its sights.

Some analysts point to Japan's high profile role in the Pacific Protector drill as proof that North Korea's secretive regime is a prime suspect in weapons smuggling. Japan is widely regarded as the most likely target of any nuclear strike by Pyongyang.

Exercise Pacific Protector follows inconclusive six-nation talks about the North Korean nuclear standoff in Beijing last month.