updated 3/1/2005 11:17:47 AM ET 2005-03-01T16:17:47

Interpol sounded an “urgent” warning Tuesday that bioterrorism is the world’s greatest security threat and police across the globe are ill-equipped to handle an attack.

At a meeting hosted by the global police agency, police and security officials shied from detailing specific threats but warned that al-Qaida has stated its intention to use biological weapons and that Iraq has become the breeding ground for terrorist groups.

“There is no criminal threat with greater potential danger to all countries, regions and people in the world than the threat of bioterrorism,” Interpol Secretary-General Ronald K. Noble said in opening remarks.

“And there is no crime area where the police generally have as little training than in preventing — or responding to — bioterrorist attacks,” Noble added.

'Largest meeting of police ever'
More than 500 police and counterterrorism officials from 155 countries flew to Lyon for the conference, making it what Noble called “the largest meeting of police ever.”

Interpol is based in the southeastern city of Lyon.

“The threat of bioterrorism is real,” Noble said, noting that al-Qaida has posted how-to instructions for making biological weapons on the Internet.

During the two-day meeting, police will examine past incidents, including the anthrax scare that shook the United States after the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackings and the 1995 sarin attacks in the Tokyo subway. Talks will also focus on how to better prevent and prepare for threats and training police to handle them.

Senior officials were expected from the New York Police Department, the U.S. Postal Service and London’s Metropolitan Police, as well as from Canada, Malaysia, Singapore and South Africa.

Threat to food chain, livestock
South African Police Commissioner Jackie Selebi, who is also Interpol’s president, singled out the possibility of an attack on the international food chain and livestock.

“The consequences of bioterrorist attack against livestock are substantial,” he said, saying that “relatively little” attention has been paid to the threat.

“This is not science fiction,” he said, “but a call for urgent prevention.”

French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin described the level of a general terrorist threat today as “particularly high, and said that Iraq was where “most of the terrorist groups have set up offices.”

De Villepin said it was crucial for countries to pool information from their biotech labs, security agencies and hospitals to better track terrorist threats and know where to turn for help.

“Each country has to know what stock of vaccines are available so they can be called on,” he said.

International center proposed
De Villepin proposed creating an international center for monitoring bioterrorist risks and suspicious materials. The center could be linked to the United Nations and based in France, he said.

Noble noted two gaps that could hinder a fast response to a biological attack. He said police need a worldwide list of scientists and health experts who could be consulted in an emergency and a high-tech police alert system, whereby one police force could alert those around the world of a terrorist threat.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, international cooperation has improved. Now 117 countries contribute to Interpol’s global database of names and photographs of suspected terrorists, Selebi said.

The database, which held information on 2,202 people in 2001, now has the names and pictures of more than 8,000 suspects.

Interpol also has a database for stolen travel documents. The database was started in 2002 with 3,150 entries — it now has more than 5.5 million.

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