US, British, Asian navies stage anti-WMD exercise in the South China Sea
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US, British, Asian navies stage anti-WMD exercise in the South China Sea

AFP | August 17, 2005

US, British and Asia-Pacific naval forces on Wednesday staged a joint exercise in the South China Sea to demonstrate a mock interception of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) aboard a merchant ship.

Exercise Deep Sabre is part of the Proliferation Security Initiativea US-led effort to improve global efforts to intercept nuclear, chemical and biological weapons shipments by rogue states and terrorist groups.

Singapore Navy servicemen rappelled from two helicopters onto the Avatar after it was intercepted, while troops from the Japanese Coast Guard and Australian Customs Service clambered onto the vessel from fast boats.

Following indications of suspicious cargo on board, the ship was escorted to a Singapore port for a more detailed search, according to the scenario of the exercise.

It is the first PSI-related exercise to be held in Southeast Asia, which has some of the world's busiest shipping lanes in the Singapore and Malacca Straits.

The exercise is also one of the biggest since the PSI was launched in May 2003. It involves 2,000 personnel, 10 ships and six maritime patrol aircraft from 13 countries, including the United States, Australia, Japan, New Zealand and Britain.

Other nations taking part are Canada, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands and Russia along with Singapore.

In the exercise scenario, the United States received information indicating that there could be some transfer of chemicals from a Northeast Asian country to the Middle East.

The shipment was likely to transit the South China Sea and pass through the Strait of Malacca.

A report by Japan of ships fitting the profile of the suspected vessels sparked a dramatic, 36-hour international effort to track the ships through 600 nautical miles in the South China Sea. The exercise culminated in Wednesday's interception of the Avatar.

The Australian Defence Force supply vessel HMAS Westralia and Britain's supply ship Black Rover had also played the part of "bad guys" but the search finally zeroed in on the Avatar, which was rented by Singapore's defence ministry for the drill.

The exercise "underscores Singapore's commitment to the PSI and international efforts to counter the proliferation of weapns of mass destruction," Singapore Navy fleet commander Rear Admiral Chew Men Leong told reporters.

"Exercise Deep Sabre's core objective is really to bring PSI nations together, enhance the ability to inter-operate and sharpen the capacity to work together in a cooperative manner to interdict shipments of WMD and related materials," he said.

Commander Richard Powell of Britain's Royal Navy, said the exercise was crucial because there was an "extreme likelihood" that weapons could be carried in vessels passing through the Singapore and Malacca Straits.

"Singapore is very important to the PSI program as the second signatory in Asia and given its strategic position and the amount of transit freight and ships that call upon the ports here," said Paul Andretta, a US supervising customs and border protection officer.

Over 60 countries are signatories to the initiative.

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