ARLINGTON, Va. — The first of 10 planned multinational maritime interdiction exercises to seek out and stop shipments of suspected weapons of mass destruction kicked off Saturday off the Australian coast.

The exercise, dubbed “Pacific Protector” by Australia, the lead nation, features military and law enforcement personnel from four of 11 nations participating in the Proliferation Security Initiative, said a senior U.S. Defense Department official who spoke Friday on the condition his name not be used.

The four nations contributing forces or ships to Pacific Protector are Australia, France, Japan and the United States. The other PSI nations — Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Poland, Spain, and the United Kingdom — will have observers present.

Pacific Protector is separate from another maritime interdiction exercise also being conducted off the Australian coast dubbed “Crocodile 03,” a joint training exercise between the United States and Australia.

Exercise participants will use the U.S. motor vessel Pvt. Franklin J. Phillips, a maritime prepositioning ship owned by the U.S. Navy but operated by civilians to transport cargo, to simulate a Japanese cargo vessel suspected of carrying weapons of mass destruction, the official said.

Forces will board the vessel, conduct a search and find a simulated WMD, the defense official said.

The future nine exercises, which will take place in rapid succession and are slated to be completed by the first months of 2004, are planned for the Mediterranean Sea and the Persian Gulf, though no time line has been established, he said.

While Defense officials have not named any nation that would be targeted by such raids, North Korea is high on the list as one of the most serious suspected proliferators of missile technology.

On Dec. 9, Spain’s navy, working with U.S. authorities, intercepted a North Korean ship carrying missiles to Yemen. But “the proliferators are constantly changing” and the nations need to adapt, the defense official said.

Part of the exercises, too, is “to find out where we have gaps in international law,” when it comes to what authority nations have to board ships sailing in international waters, he said.

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