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Reuters May 24, 2005

India arms cache stokes maritime smuggling fears

By Stefano Ambrogi

LONDON (Reuters) - A cache of arms found by Indian police in a container at the port of Mumbai highlights fears that containers are being used to smuggle illicit weapons around the globe, security experts said on Tuesday.

Bombay police confirmed on Tuesday they had seized 37 revolvers, 1,280 rounds of ammunition and a silencer from a container last Friday that arrived from Singapore at the busy Jawaharlal Nehru Port.

The stash was hidden in 27 barrels of grease and bound for a local criminal gang, police said.

They suspected the container -- which arrived on May 11 -- came from either Singapore or Dubai, in the complex web of international container trans-shipment trade.

"Containers are going to be used for this kind of thing. Only between 1-3 percent are actually checked worldwide," said Dominick Donald, a senior analyst in maritime terrorism with Aegis Defence Services in London.

"So your chance of getting stuff through is very good," he said.

Donald said although the cache was small, it illustrated how easily illicit weapons, supplies and even operatives could be smuggled around the world by sea.

In October 2002 Italian police discovered an Egyptian national hiding inside a shipping container fitted out as makeshift home.

He was discovered in a routine search at the port of Gioai Tauro, southern Italy, on a ship en route from Egypt to Toronto.

"A month after 9/11 a magistrate said there wasn't enough evidence to hold him despite a couple of sketch maps of airports in north America," said Donald, adding that he was bailed and subsequently vanished.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the multi-billion dollar maritime industry has introduced a raft of security measures, including the Container Security Initiative (CSI).

U.S. fears remain, however, with some 35 million containers estimated to be in use globally.

"What they are worried about is that there is a nuclear device somewhere out there that someone is going to smuggle in (thriller writer) Tom Clancy-style and set it off in Baltimore or New York," said Donald.

"It is a concern that they have got to address and it is very much driving the CSI agenda," he said.

John Pike, director of U.S.-based GlobalSecurity.Org, said the discovery hinted at the scale of the illicit movement of arms via containers.

"One of the challenges in all of this has been to try to figure out whether it (the problem) is bigger than a bread box -- and how much of an effort needs to be put on it and what it needs to focus on.

"There is just no way that you are going to physically inspect every container. And so if you're not going to open up and rummage around every container, what are you going to do?"

He said the answer may be to narrow down and inspect containers from specific world regions.

Ronald Thomason, vice president of operations at SeaSecure, a U.S. maritime security consultancy, said the incident appeared to show Mumbai was fulfilling its obligations under the International Ship and Port Security code introduced last year.

"Even though the container was found on a ship in a port, the question is at what point was this contraband loaded? ... This highlights the need for security to be enforced across the entire supply chain."

(Additional reporting by Thomas Kutty Abraham in Mumbai and Caroline Drees in Washington)


Copyright 2005, Reuters