APEC Officials Approve Plan to Test Airports' Vulnerability to Shoulder-Fired Missiles

BUSAN, South Korea_Officials from 21 Asia Pacific economies on Sunday endorsed a U.S. proposal to test whether major airports in their countries could repel a terrorist attack using shoulder-fired missiles, officials said.

The plan was approved only after officials overcame initial objections from China and several other countries that expressed fears tourism and other business could be harmed if their airports were found to be vulnerable, delegates involved on the discussions told The Associated Press.

The airport testing plan was among a range of counterterrorism initiatives considered by senior officials of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, who are meeting to hammer out agenda details for their leaders' annual summit on Friday and Saturday.

The leaders need to sign off on the plan before it is formally adopted.

Under the proposal, each APEC member would conduct an assessment sometime in 2006 of its key international airport to check if would be safe if terrorists tried an attack using shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles, known as MANPADS, said Kim Jong-hoon, the South Korean host of the officials' meetings.

The checks, using standards set by the U.N.'s International Civil Aviation Organization, would include whether airport security was tight enough to prevent missile components from being brought in, a diplomat involved in the discussions told AP on condition of anonymity.

The checks would also assess whether an airport's location could allow terrorists with MANPADS to get close enough to bring into range planes that were taking off or landing, and whether crowded residential communities near an airport could provide places for terrorists to hide, the diplomat said.

"It's part of the comprehensive strategy designed to foil a terrorist attack," said Benjamin Defensor, who heads APEC's anti-terrorist task force.

China, the Philippines and at least four other APEC governments opposed the proposal initially, fearing airports that failed the test might be blacklisted by international airlines or avoided by tourists and businesspeople, a Southeast Asian diplomat involved in the talks told the AP. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.

But the countries eased their opposition to the plan after being assured that the APEC agreement to conduct the assessment would be voluntary and non-binding, the diplomat told the Associated Press.

Fears that MANPADS have become a weapon of terrorists have grown since suspected extremists fired SA-7 missiles that narrowly missed a Boeing airliner evacuating Israeli civilians in Mombansa Kenya in 2002.

That attack triggered calls for strict controls on the production and transport of AMPADS, which were widely used during the Cold War and that governments suspect could be in the arsenal of groups like al-Qaida.

<<Associated Press WorldStream -- 11/14/05>>