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'Mercury 04' Underway in Australia - 2004-03-22

Australia's largest ever counter-terrorism exercise is underway, with five days of simulated attacks to test the preparedness of security forces and the emergency services. The exercise, dubbed 'Mercury 04' is the first of five anti-terrorism drills this year and comes as the Australian government reviews domestic security in the wake of the recent bomb attacks in Spain.

The simulated hijacking of an oil rig off the coast of Darwin in the Northern Territory is among the first challenges faced by Australia's counter-terrorism teams. Details of where and when these simulated attacks will take place are known to just a handful of people.

For the first time drills will be held simultaneously across Australia in four states and territories. They'll involve the Prime Minister, senior cabinet figures, local political leaders and more than 3,000 other personnel.

New chemical, biological and radiological equipment is being tested as well as plans to protect water and electricity supplies in the event of an attack. Hospitals will also test their ability to cope with mass casualties.

Australia's Attorney-General Philip Ruddock says the exercises will show just how prepared the country is. "I mean, you never know when an emergency is likely to occur. If you can't deal with those sorts of situations in an exercise, how much more difficult would it be in a real emergency?" he says. "You've got to test various scenarios, people have to be able to demonstrate that they have the skills, the capacities, the equipment to be able to deal with potentially real-life situations."

"Mercury 04" has been planned for the past year-and-a-half. The bombings in Madrid have given the exercise a greater urgency and relevance. A senior FBI agent warned in Sydney last week that it was inevitable Australia would eventually be attacked by extremists.

Australia has been an active supporter of the U.S.-led war on terror.

The bombings on the Indonesian holiday island of Bali two years ago brought this isolated nation to the front-line of international terrorism.

Two-hundred two people died in the twin attacks in Bali, including many young Australian tourists. The atrocity has left much of Australia feeling vulnerable and afraid.

Over the weekend the federal Government said a review of maritime security in Australia would be carried out at the country's 70 ports. Senior ministers warned that a hijacked freighter could be turned into a floating bomb to target landmarks such as the Sydney Opera House.