Australian police, federal agents begins counterterrorism exercises

Thousands of police and federal agents will respond to mock car bombs, hostage sieges, port attacks and other terror strikes across Australia this week to test the country's readiness ahead of next year's Commonwealth Games, officials said Monday. Most drills will take place around Melbourne, where the games will be held, Attorney General Philip Ruddock told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. Rescuers will practice treating masses of causalities.

The games, expected to draw thousands of athletes from around the former British empire from March 15-26, are expected to be opened by Britain's Queen Elizabeth II.

Around 4,000 officials from government, law enforcement and security agencies are expected to take part, along with 70 observers from 24 countries.

The exercises, billed as Australia's largest-ever domestic counterterrorism operation, came as Prime Minister John Howard played down concerns about proposed changes to the country's anti-terrorism laws.

The proposed laws, which are expected to be debated by parliament later this month, would allow security forces to hold terror suspects without charge for 14 days and track people suspected of involvement with terror groups for up to a year.

Civil liberties groups have criticized the laws, saying they will undermine the right to free speech, reports the AP. I.L.

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