ABOARD THE USS NICHOLAS, Atlantic Ocean — The British Royal Navy sailors looked like they meant business.

Dressed in camouflage and toting rifles, they climbed aboard the U.S. frigate in an exercise to find weapons of mass destruction.

Some U.S. sailors acted as crewmembers of a make-believe commercial ship led by an annoyed skipper, while others just watched the British ship-boarding team go to work.

The purpose of Tuesday’s drill was to practice how to search a merchant ship suspected of carrying illegal arms. The training served as a prelude to a three-day, multinational exercise, which began Wednesday.

Military forces from 11 countries are in the western Mediterranean Sea participating in what is being dubbed Sanso 2003. The Spanish-led exercise is the third in a series planned through early 2004. Each is part of a U.S-created initiative to stop weapons trafficking.

President Bush debuted the Proliferation Security Initiative in May with hopes of creating a global alliance and agreements that would allow the United States and its allies to search planes and ships suspected of carrying lethal cargo anywhere in the world.

Spanish Capt. Ramon Marquez Montero said this week’s exercise is a chance to build teamwork among the international forces and pump up weapon-hunting skills on the high seas. He said initiative partners are still discussing how the alliance would best be able to impede weapons trafficking.

“This is not a political organization,” he said. “It is only an initiative.… And the exercise is just one part of the initiative.”

The five countries providing ships and planes for this week’s maritime exercise are the United Kingdom, the United States, France, Portugal and Spain. Other initiative member nations include Japan, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland and Australia.

Military officials insist the exercise does not target any specific state, but it is no secret that North Korea and Iran are at the top of the list of suspected banned weapons traders.

Last December, the Spanish Navy — with the help of U.S. forces — boarded a Yemen-bound North Korean ship with Scud missiles. The ship was eventually allowed to deliver the cargo to its destination, but the incident showed how easy it is to ship ballistic missiles long distances.

During Tuesday’s exercise, French, Spanish, British and U.S. forces tested their ship-boarding tactics. The ships cruised to a diamond formation near the Strait of Gibraltar as a team from each boarded the adjacent ship looking for suspected weapons of mass destruction.

U.S. sailors wearing desert fatigues and black Special Operations-style helmets launched from the frigate in a small rubber boat and sped to the French warship Jacouvet, while the British team boarded the Norfolk, Va.-based USS Nicholas.

Royal Navy Petty Officer Keith Pierce had his team rummage through the wardroom to look for contraband just as if they had stormed a suspicious merchant vessel. British sailors opened china cabinet doors, searched garbage cans and peaked under ceiling tiles. A typical bow-to-stern search could take more than an hour. For time’s sake, it was much shorter.

“You have to be critical of everything,” Pierce told his men.

They wouldn’t find any weapons, real or fake.

The only items the Brits would take back were a bottle of red wine and a plaque — both gifts from the USS Nicholas commander and his crew.

U.S. sailors who boarded the French ship didn’t return empty-handed, either.

They seized a bottle of champagne.

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