Ports of the world on red alert

PORTS worldwide have been on red alert ever since Osama bin Laden's terrorists launched their devastating attack on the World Trade Centre.As Britain's busiest port, Felixstowe was one of the first earmarked for extra security – detection devices which can spot radioactive material and stop bin Laden smuggling a nuclear bomb into Britain.

By Richard Cornwell

PORTS worldwide have been on red alert ever since Osama bin Laden's terrorists launched their devastating attack on the World Trade Centre.

As Britain's busiest port, Felixstowe was one of the first earmarked for extra security – detection devices which can spot radioactive material and stop bin Laden smuggling a nuclear bomb into Britain.

Experts in weaponry believe bin Laden and his al Qaida group have the capability to make a device to cause widespread mayhem.

It would not be a nuclear bomb in the usual sense but what is known as a "dirty bomb".

Such devices use conventional explosives to spread radioactive material over a wide area to cause huge long-term health risks or make areas uninhabitable.

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The equipment known as remote radiological detection devices can 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.

There is no suggestion that nuclear material has been found at Felixstowe in the current incident – although the authorities would not say if it was a bomb of any kind, though it could be parts for a bomb or bomb-making equipment.

With the huge amount of cargo coming through the 700-acre Suffolk port – Britain's biggest container terminal – it would be a main target for smugglers trying to bring weapons into the country, just as it is for drugs.

It is not possible for customs to check every single cargo which comes through the port, which handles 2.8 million boxes a year and 500,000 roll-on roll-off lorries, plus other commodities.

Customs officers work on intelligence received from colleagues around the world, as well as carrying out random routine checks by hand, with sniffer dogs and with specialist equipment.

Details of the latest incident would not have come to light at all had a concerned portworker not put a call in to The Evening Star, and it begs the questions how many other occasions have anti-terrorist officers been called to the port.

Although no operational details are being disclosed, one vital unanswered question is why customs officers intercepted the load and stopped it at the port rather than letting it continue its journey and tracking it.

This has been common practice with drugs, sometimes with the narcotics removed and replaced with other materials, in order to make arrests and trace those who may be handling the consignment further down the line.

That may be an indication of the scale of the find with the authorities deciding not to let it out onto the road and into a public place.

Another big question is where the drugs came from – in which country did the haul originate, though this will be sensitive information and vital to any further work done in liaison with customs abroad and the secret service.

If the haul was not found by routine inspection of suspicious cargo, then it would most likely have been spotted by the beam of the new £2.5m X-ray machine brought into detect cigarettes and tobacco as part of the crackdown on lost tax revenue.

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