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More officers to be based at port

PUBLISHED: 17:55 19 August 2002 | UPDATED: 12:30 03 March 2010

AMERICAN customs officers could soon be based at Felixstowe port as part of the ongoing worldwide fight against terrorism.

The US government wants every container heading for one of its ports to be opened before it arrives to ensure there is no nuclear bomb inside.

AMERICAN customs officers could soon be based at Felixstowe port as part of the ongoing worldwide fight against terrorism.

The US government wants every container heading for one of its ports to be opened before it arrives to ensure there is no nuclear bomb inside.

Its biggest fear is that Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida group could smuggle a device, probably a "dirty bomb" using conventional explosives to spread radioactive or germ warfare material over a wide area, into the heart of a city.

White House officials say the only way to avoid this is for the exact contents of every box destined for a US port to be known 24 hours before it is due.

Negotiations are currently taking place with the British government over the stationing of American customs officers at Felixstowe, Southampton, Thamesport and Liverpool to take responsibility for cargo bound for the states.

A deal on the project – known as the Container Security Initiative – could be struck by the end of the month.

It is understood the government has no objection in principle.

A spokesman for Customs and Excise in London said: "We are supportive of the idea."

Some shippers fear that opening every US-bound box for inspection could cause major disruption to the flow of trade, though others feel it will kick-start people into providing more complete and efficient data on cargoes.

Britain has also been warned that it needs to improve security arrangements for containers being imported here – and a House of Commons defence committee last month warned that there had been "a lack of real urgency" on the matter in the wake of September 11.

Five million containers enter the country's ports each year – 2.5m at Felixstowe – and very few are searched.

After the attack on the World Trade Centre, Felixstowe was said to be getting special equipment, known as remote radiological detection devices, so that all containers could be searched.

The devices seek out traces of plutonium or enriched uranium and can either be hand-held or attached to a static object, such as a security barrier.

However, it is not clear whether these have been installed or not.

MPs were told that searching every container would affect the free movement of trade and would be handing a moral victory to the terrorists.

It is not known how much dangerous material has been found at Felixstowe port, but in April this year there was a full-scale alert when a cache of explosives, including Semtex, machine guns, detonators and mortar bombs, were smuggled in a container.

Customs officers who discovered the consignment of weapons are thought to have foiled a major terrorist attack on the British mainland.

The weapons were found in a car hidden in a container as part of a routine search. Anti-terrorist squad officers have been investigating but no-one has been charged with any offences.

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