updated 2/15/2004 6:14:58 AM ET 2004-02-15T11:14:58

U.S. Navy forces can board thousands of commercial ships in international waters to search for weapons of mass destruction under a landmark deal signed this week between the United States and Liberia, the world’s No. 2 shipping registry.

The accord comes amid persistent fears that terror networks would use ships for attacks, and effectively hands oversight of vessels under the Liberian flag to the U.S. military, industry analysts say.

“The boarding agreement provides authority on a bilateral basis to board sea vessels suspected of carrying illicit shipments of weapons of mass destruction, their delivery systems or related materials,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Thursday.

Boucher said the deal, signed Wednesday, is modeled on similar accords in counter-narcotics work. He also said it was only the first to be reached under the Proliferation Security Initiative, begun by White House in May. He said similar agreements are being sought with other states.

“It’s based on the need to stop the proliferation in weapons of mass destruction and means to deliver them,” he said.

If a U.S. ship suspects a Liberian vessel is carrying proliferation-related cargo, the captain can request the suspect vessel to confirm its nationality and if needed authorize the boarding, searching and possible detention of the vessel and its cargo, Boucher said.

The vessel has two hours from time of contact to respond.

Under the agreement, a Liberian vessel has similar rights with respect to suspect U.S. vessels.

Boucher did not name other countries with which the United States is pursuing similar agreements.

The No. 1 “flag of convenience” country is Panama. Third after Liberia is the Bahamas, and fourth is Cyprus.

Liberia, which is emerging from nearly 15 years of civil war, has hosted a U.S.-based shipping registry since 1949. It now ranks second to Panama in total shipping tonnage in U.S. ports, under so-called flags of convenience.

Liberia says more than 2,000 vessels worldwide are registered under its flag. One-third of imported oil arrives on Liberian-flagged tankers.

David Osler of London-based Lloyd’s List, a leading shipping industry publication, said the U.S.-Liberian accord was the first he knew of sanctioning U.S. searches of commercial ships at sea.

Panama has no such agreement and isn’t currently negotiating one, Deputy Foreign Minister Nivia Rossana Castrellon said in Panama City.

She said the United States had not approached Panama with that request but that Panama was one of nine countries which signed an agreement last year that allows U.S. officials to search cargo once it has been removed from a ship and unloaded to a port. Panama is working with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to train officials for searches.

Two other countries known as flags of convenience, the Bahamas and the Caribbean archipelago of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, said they had not signed any agreements that would allow U.S. forces to board their ships. It was unclear, however, if U.S. officials have approached them about a future agreement.

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