updated 12/19/2003 10:42:29 AM ET 2003-12-19T15:42:29

The United States and allies next month plan to practice seizing a ship carrying weapons of mass destruction near where a North Korean missile shipment was captured last year.

The naval exercise scheduled Jan. 11-12 is part of a Bush administration effort to block shipments of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, the material and equipment needed to make them and missiles that could be used to carry them.

It will be the third such exercise undertaken by the “Proliferation Security Initiative,” a 16-nation group formed this year. Experts from the countries met in Washington this week to discuss lessons learned from those exercises — one each in the Mediterranean and Coral seas — and start planning for five more in the next four months. A “table top” exercise on intercepting airplanes also has been held.

The January exercise in the Arabian Sea will include forces from several other members of the initiative, though precisely which countries has not been decided, a senior Pentagon official said Thursday. They will track, board and search a U.S. merchant vessel outfitted to mimic one carrying weapons of mass destruction.

Similar to seizure of N. Korean ship
The scenario is nearly identical to the seizure a year ago of a shipment of North Korean Scud missiles, which later was released, said the official, who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity. On U.S. intelligence, Spanish forces seized the ship and found 15 missiles and other military gear. They turned the ship over to American forces, which released it after several days when Yemen said it had bought the weapons and promised not to sell them to anyone else.

Building "The Bomb"The incident was an embarrassment for the Bush administration and showed the need for better cooperation on seizures. It also underscored the legal difficulties in seizing such shipments, which often do not violate international law.

Legal experts from the participating countries discussed such problems during the Washington meetings but made no decisions, the Pentagon official said. He said the United States is working to forge agreements with countries where many ships are registered to smooth the way toward boarding, inspecting and seizing weapons shipments.

Other nations in the initiative are: Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain, the United Kingdom and five new members — Canada, Denmark, Norway, Singapore and Turkey.

Project is high priority
Bush has made the project a high priority. His national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz met with the group this week. Officials say the initiative is aimed at stemming the flow of weapon and missile technologies across the globe with particular emphasis on North Korea and Iran.

Pyongyang exports missiles and other military gear, and the United States and its allies accuse it of selling weapons of mass destruction technology as well. The United States accuses Iran of having a clandestine nuclear weapons program, while Tehran says the program is only to make electricity.

North Korea responded angrily both to the missile seizure and the proliferation initiative. Before the first exercise, an official North Korean newspaper called it a “military provocation.”

Other upcoming exercises include a “table top” air interdiction exercise hosted by Italy Feb. 18-19; a customs seizure simulation in Germany in late March; a maritime exercise hosted by Italy in the Mediterranean April 13-22; and a simulated ground interdiction in Poland in late April.

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