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Australia's Maritime Security Net Stirs Concern Among Neighbors

Plans by Australia to enforce an extensive new offshore security zone are causing concern among its neighbors. The Maritime Identification Zone announced by Prime Minister John Howard will extend 1,800 kilometers from Australia's coast and could see its forces intercept vessels far beyond his country's territorial waters.

The maritime security net - the latest in government plans to tighten Australia's security against terrorists - is stirring concern among Australia's neighbors and drawing warnings from legal experts.

The new security net is meant to stop suspect ships from reaching port or attacking offshore oil and natural gas rigs.

But the New Zealand government says the proposed zone - 1,800 kilometers from Australia's vast coastline - would take in both New Zealand's exclusive economic zone and parts of its territorial waters.

New Zealand wants Canberra to clarify whether its forces intend to intercept ships within these waters. It also warns that Australia could run into problems with its northern neighbors, including Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.

On Thursday, Australian Foreign Ministry officials said the 1,800 kilometer limit would apply only in areas that did not overlap with another country's jurisdiction.

Maritime law experts, including Sydney University Professor Don Rothwell, warn that Australia could breach international law if it intercepts ships beyond its territorial waters in some of the busiest sea routes in the world.

"There's no firm basis under the international law of the sea for interception of vessels on the high seas in the absence of vessels not flying flags or being pirate ships," Mr. Rothwell said. "There could be a potential basis under [United Nations] Security Council resolutions, but no such resolutions have been adopted at the moment."

The plan allows defense and customs authorities to intercept vessels within 1,800 kilometers of Australia's coast. This is far beyond its economic exclusion zone, which extends 360 kilometers offshore.

Ships' captains will be asked to give details of their journey and cargo once they are within the 1,800 kilometer limit.

In announcing the plan on Wednesday, Prime Minister John Howard said the net was another valuable way to make Australia safer.

"The Government has decided to establish a new joint offshore protection command, which is designed to better define and reinforce the measures that are needed to protect Australian ports and the Australian coastline from possible infiltration or attack," he said.

The plan is to come into force in March and follows reviews of Australian security after the terror attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001 and the October Bali bombings in 2002 that killed more than 200 people.