Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - U.S.-trained sky marshals will begin flying on domestic Australian flights within days, discreetly armed with low-velocity weapons using ammunition designed not to penetrate an aircraft's fuselage.
The measure is one of several instituted in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, and is due to be in place before Christmas.
The announcement was made by the government in reaction to criticism by a leading aviation workers' union that little had been done to improve aircraft safety since terrorists flew hijacked planes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
"Highly trained and armed" officers would travel on randomly-selected flights, Attorney-General Daryl Williams said in a statement.
American experts have trained members of the Australian Protective Services unit, usually responsible for counter-terrorism tasks at major airports, for the past six weeks.
They will initially be used on domestic flights, while legal concerns regarding their presence on international flights are examined further.
Some local airlines have expressed doubts about the value of having the marshals on board, arguing that improving security checks on the ground is a more important safeguard.
But the government says ground safety measures had also been enhanced.
"Security at all major airports has been strengthened, including upgrading of the screening of passengers and luggage," Williams said.
Williams said claims by the Australian Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers' Union (LMHU) that security had not been sufficiently improved were "ill informed and irresponsible."
Other counter-terrorism measures in the post-Sept. 11 era include giving the Australian security agency, ASIO, additional powers to investigate terrorist activity; plans to introduce legislation to create specific offenses of terrorism and preparing or planning terror acts; and amending laws to enable the freezing and seizure of terrorists' assets.
The LMHU this week launched a campaign called "Securing our Airports," in which security staff at major airports will hand out pamphlets to passengers, asking them to support higher security standards.
More than three months after the U.S. attacks, the union said Sunday, security staff at Sydney airport "are still waiting for new upgraded procedures, drills and training to face the post-September 11 security climate."
Jeff Lawrence, LHMU national secretary, said the U.S. government had ordered upgrading and standardizing of security at 420 airports, ranging from the smallest to some of the biggest in the world.
"Surely we can go through the same process in Australia for what is a little more than 40 airports."
The union is calling for uniform security standards for all flights, the upgrading of screening equipment, a national training standard for all officers, as well as improved working conditions and pay.
Australia was shaken recently by claims by a suspected al-Qaeda linked militant in custody in India that the country's highest building - along with high profile buildings in Britain and India - was intended to be a target of a airborne terrorist attack on the same day as the U.S. was attacked.
The suspect, Mohammed Afroz Abdul Razak - who took flying lessons in Australia in the late 1990s - has since been charged with conspiracy and waging war against India. Australian officials are trying to get access to him for questioning.
Meanwhile the government says Australian national David Hicks, allegedly captured while fighting with al-Qaeda terrorists in Afghanistan last week, will soon be handed over to U.S. forces by his Northern Alliance captors.
"Investigations are ongoing," Defense Minister Senator Robert Hill said at the weekend. "If Mr. Hicks has committed a crime against Australian law, the Australian government will do whatever is necessary to bring him to justice."