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Alert over suicide speedboats

An Australian diver searching for mines off Umm Qasr takes a break.
An Australian diver searching for mines off Umm Qasr takes a break.

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•  Commanders: U.S. | Iraq
•  Weapons: 3D Models

CANBERRA, Australia -- Naval forces clearing mines from the waters around the Iraqi port of Umm Qasr are on high alert for suicide attacks by speedboats packed with explosives.

Already a concern, the alert has been heightened after Iranian gunboats on Wednesday intercepted an Iraqi speedboat packed with half a tonne of explosives.

Three other Iraqi speedboats, which may contain similar amounts of explosive, got away when Iranian forces engaged Iraqis at the mouth of the Shatt-al-Arab river, according to a report by a journalist aboard Australian navy ship HMAS Kanimbla.

The explosives were discovered after one of the Iraqi boats was run aground during the confrontation, the report said.

The head of Australia's navy, Vice-Admiral Chris Ritchie, told a media briefing in Canberra Thursday that the military were taking the jetboat threat seriously.

In recent days Australian and British navy divers have been clearing mines from sea lanes around the Iraqi port of Umm Qasr, opening the way for humanitarian aid shipments

"We do take that threat seriously ... with a very comprehensive surveillance umbrella that aims to identify everything that moves," Vice-Admiral Ritchie said.

Boats packed with explosives were used in attacks on the USS Cole in October 2000, in which 17 American sailors were killed, and last year's ramming of the French oil tanker, the Linburg.

Ritchie said the Umm Qasr port, which is now in coalition forces hand, could be open to ships on Thursday, clearing the way for seaborne aid to reach civilians in southern Iraq.

"There is an expectation that we might be able to get a ship in there very late this evening our time, but I would urge some caution because the weather is not very good," Reuters reports him saying.

Pressure to deliver

He said the naval workers had found some mines since seizing the port -- on a barge and on a sunken vessel -- but no mines planted by Iraqi forces on the seabed.

Umm Qasr is Iraq's only deepwater seaport and, until it was closed by the threat of war, was the main entry point for food and other aid under the United Nation's "Oil For Food" program.

Coalition forces are under pressure to deliver on promises from U.S. President George W. Bush to provide "massive amounts" of aid to the Iraqi people.

Britain's HMS Sir Galahad, carrying 230 tonnes of items such as food, blankets, clean water, medicine and plastic sheeting is expected to be the first ship to unload aid at the port.

Two ships carrying 100,000 tonnes of wheat supplied by the Australian government are also in the area awaiting clearance.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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