Panama to let U.S. board registered ships

Panama to let U.S. board registered ships

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, according to published reports.

The agreement, to be signed Wednesday in Washington, is similar to an accord the U.S. State Department reached in February with Liberia, the world's second-largest shipping registry behind Panama.

The accord expands the current so-called Salas-Becker pact that 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 cargos.

The U.S. will have to submit a formal extradition request to Panama if it wants to charge someone intercepted aboard ship.

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.

Panama has 10,400 ships registered under its flag, nearly 5,700 cargo ships.