- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 11, 2004

PANAMA CITY — Panama will allow U.S. officials to board ships registered under its flag and search them for weapons of mass destruction amid concerns that terrorists could take advantage of lax security on the high seas, a Panamanian official said yesterday.

The agreement, to be signed today in Washington, is similar to an accord the State Department reached in February with Liberia, the world’s No. 2 shipping registry. Panama is No. 1.

Panamanian Justice and Interior Secretary Arnulfo Escalono traveled to Washington yesterday for the signing, Justice Department spokesman David Salayandia said.

The accord expands the so-called “Salas-Becker” pact, which already allows U.S. Coast Guard officials to board ships with Panamanian registration in search of narcotics. That pact was signed in February 2002.

The new agreement gives the U.S. Navy the right to board thousands of commercial ships in national and international waters to search for weapons of mass destruction and other terrorist-related cargo.

If the United States wants to charge someone intercepted on the ships with a crime, however, it will have to submit a formal extradition request to Panama, Mr. Salayandia said.

A Panamanian Justice and Interior Department news release called the accord “an important step … to strengthen the mechanisms we have to intercept suspect shipments.”

It “sends a clear message to traffickers of these types of shipments that neither Panama nor the United States will permit the use of their respective ships for the illicit transport of articles used for the proliferation” of arms, the statement said.

U.S. Embassy spokesman Will Ostick said the agreement was important, given that Panama has its flag on 21 percent of the world’s registered ships.

“It is very important to verify the cargo of these ships,” he said.

Panama possesses the largest shipping registry in the world, with 10,400 ships sailing under the country’s flag, the Panama Maritime Authority said. Of those, nearly 5,700 are cargo ships.

The new accord comes amid fears that terror networks could launch attacks from ships which, unlike strictly monitored commercial airliners, have relatively lax security.

In September, British and American intelligence authorities discovered an illegal shipment of centrifuge parts that can be used to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons aboard a German freighter bound for Libya.

Last May, countries led by the United States introduced an effort to halt commerce in weapons of mass destruction. In December, officials from 16 countries held talks at the State Department in Washington on how to block the transfer of missiles and weapons technology.

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