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Saturday, August 10, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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U.S. aims for more power to police seas

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Moving to widen its hunt for terrorists and cut off their weapons routes at sea, the Bush administration is negotiating agreements with dozens of nations for new powers to police the world's waters, defense officials said.

The plan being developed, which hasn't been approved by the Pentagon, builds on the months-old ship-interdiction operation started largely to capture al-Qaida members fleeing Afghanistan across international waters, four officials said on condition of anonymity.

It envisions giving U.S. forces rights to chase down and board vessels not only in international waters but in another nation's sovereign waters in some circumstances — such as when pursuing ships thought to be carrying al-Qaida or other terrorists whose organizations have global reach. Ships thought to be carrying terrorist weapons or other contraband used to finance them also could be boarded, two of the officials said.

The State Department has been seeking this permission from dozens of countries in recent months, two others said, declining to name the countries.

Over the months, more than 100 ships from allies including Australia, Britain, Italy, Germany and Japan have taken part in the operation, which also monitors movement in the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf and waters around Africa.

Naval forces have announced the capture of only four suspects — all coming from Iran last month — and the sinking of one vessel carrying hashish. But the operation has netted a wealth of documents identifying who is going where and how contraband is being shipped, as well as a greater knowledge about piracy and other activities on the seas, two officials said.

Under current operations, coalition ships contact approaching vessels by radio or other signals and ask them to identify themselves and their cargo. Most are allowed to go on their way. Coalition forces stop and board a vessel if the crew acts suspicious, the vessel has varied its route or coalition forces have prior intelligence about it, among other factors.

Forces have queried more than 16,000 crews and boarded nearly 200 vessels.

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