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Coast Guard to increase checks of certain ships

WASHINGTON -- Ships that have called at specified ports in Africa and the former Soviet Union are more likely than other vessels to be boarded and inspected when they enter US ports, the Coast Guard said yesterday.

The increased attention to those ships results from the failure of 17 countries to confirm that they meet new security standards for international ports that took effect July 1.

The Coast Guard also will board more vessels that sail under the flags of 13 countries -- including Panama, the Netherlands, and Thailand -- because their compliance with the new security standards has been below average.

The standards require every ship to have a security officer, an alarm system, access restrictions to the engine room and bridge, and a method of checking IDs of people who come aboard.

Such standards are fairly minimal given the vulnerability of ports to attack and their importance to global trade, counterterror specialists say.

The independent commission that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks said current efforts to protect the nation's 361 ports from terrorists are inadequate. In a recently released addendum to its original report, the Sept. 11 commission said the Homeland Security Department, which oversees the Coast Guard, should "bolster efforts to identify, track, and screen suspicious cargo entering the country from foreign ports."

The commission also said the department should make sure that enough shipping containers are chosen at random for screening "to deter the gaming of targeted screening systems." Few shipping containers are now opened and inspected.

Senator Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington, said spending on port security last year was about $1 billion short of what the Coast Guard said was needed. Murray unsuccessfully proposed tripling the amount of federal money to tighten port security to $450 million. The vote was largely along party lines.

The 17 countries that haven't reported that their ports comply with international standards are Albania, Benin, Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Kiribati, Lebanon, Liberia, Madagascar, Mozambique, Nauru, Nigeria, Serbia and Montenegro, Sierra Leone, Solomon Islands, and Suriname. The states whose vessels will be targeted for increased boardings are Antigua and Barbuda, Bolivia, Cayman Islands, Cook Islands, Cyprus, Honduras, Hong Kong, Malta, Netherlands, Panama, Russia, Singapore, and Thailand.

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