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Border security tightened

(by Gary Martin)

Security was tightened at U.S. borders and other potential terror targets Tuesday as Bush administration officials, citing intelligence reports, warned al-Qaida and Iraqi sympathizers could strike during a U.S.-led war against Iraq.

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said Americans should guard against panic and misinformation, but he urged people to enhance security measures and said reports of potential terror attacks were a serious concern.

"We will increase security at our borders," Ridge said, promising more Border Patrol agents under Operation Liberty Shield, unveiled to reporters during a news conference at the Homeland Security Department.

"There will be more Coast Guard air and sea patrols off our shores and in our ports, more escorts of passenger ships, and hundreds of more agents and resources on the border," Ridge said.

Border checks at the Laredo ports of entry went to 100 percent late Monday, said Mayor Betty Flores, who was in Washington on Tuesday to meet with Bush administration officials about various border issues.

"We are taking every precaution," Flores said. "We believe we have a good handle on this."

Ridge asked the nation's governors to deploy National Guard and law enforcement personnel to sites considered vulnerable to terror attack. Those sites included water supplies, highways, transportation hubs and railways.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry hasn't activated the National Guard, but continues to monitor security alerts and would do so if a situation warranted a mobilization, said Kathy Walt, a governor's spokeswoman in Austin.

"This is a state that's got a 1,200-mile-plus border with a foreign country, 800-plus miles of coastline, 21 million people, substantial military assets as well as petrochemical (facilities)," Perry noted during a visit Tuesday to Texas National Guard troops at Camp Mabry in Austin.

"It is the home state of the president of the United States. There are a number of reasons of which we need to be quite prepared."

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said Tuesday the east and west driveways to the Texas Capitol would be closed if the United States attacks Iraq, and metal detectors were being installed at entrances to the building.

He also said additional state troopers are being assigned to the border.

"We know of no threats," Dewhurst said. "We know for a fact that terrorist organizations prefer soft targets and we're doing everything we can to protect Texas."

Ridge was expected to meet with Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott today when the National Association of Attorneys General is in Washington for an annual conference.

Abbott is one of the sponsors of a Border Terrorism Conference scheduled to begin Monday in San Antonio, but it's likely to be cancelled if a U.S.-led war is launched against Iraq.

Officials from the FBI, Justice Department and Homeland Security Department, as well as Tony Garza, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, are expected to attend the conference.

The Bush administration has consulted with officials in Canada and Mexico about the increased security at U.S. border points of entry. Mexican Interior Secretary Santiago Creel said his government would "do everything they can with us," Ridge said.

Ridge said U.S. federal agencies were transferring U.S. agents and officers to border areas, a repositioning specifically aimed at the northern border with Canada. There's also a tightening of security along the 2,000-mile border with Mexico.

Flores said the increased checks have caused some delays, and she said the Mexican and American public should "take extra time" when traveling across the border.

"It's something we have to put up with. It is an inconvenience for the people who come to work and shop, but it is not our doing," she said.

Ridge pointed to recent intelligence reports of suspicious activity in and around military facilities, ports, bridges, dams and power generating facilities that could be considered terrorist targets.

In response, U.S. officials have increased Coast Guard patrols near petroleum and chemical plants, are monitoring the Internet for cyberterrorism and are guarding food and water supplies.

Asylum seekers crossing U.S. borders or arriving at airports are being detained, with additional checks being conducted if people have embarked from countries where al-Qaida and other terror groups are known to operate, Ridge said.

In addition to redeployed Border Patrol agents, Ridge said U.S. agents are increasing border surveillance to cover remote areas between the heavily traveled ports of entry.

Customs has increased not only the screening of passenger vehicles, but will conduct more intensive cargo trucks and vehicles, Ridge said.

Source: news.mysanantonio.com

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