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ON EDGE AT THE BORDER <br> OFFICIALS SEEK TO HOLD LINE ON TERRORISM

A massive effort by federal authorities to short-circuit the possibility of New Year's Eve terrorist attacks was in full swing Wednesday along the Niagara River.

At the four international bridges along the Niagara Frontier, that meant longer lines while U.S. Customs Service inspectors searched car trunks and truck cargo for anything suspicious.

The action here was part of the heightened alert at the nation's ports of entry, triggered after last week's arrest of an Algerian man who was charged with attempting to smuggle explosives into the country at Port Angeles, Wash.

On Sunday, authorities arrested another Algerian man and a Canadian woman trying to enter at a U.S.-Canada border post in Vermont. Bomb-sniffing dogs detected what might be traces of explosives in their vehicle.

About 300 customs inspectors have been temporarily transferred to ports of entry between the United States and Canada, and overtime has been authorized to ensure staffing needs are met, according to customs spokeswoman Christine Pitz.

"We're not disclosing the locations where the inspectors have been redeployed, for security reasons, but I can say all areas are receiving close attention," Pitz said.

That close attention means more thorough and more frequent inspections of traffic between the United States and Canada and at airports and seaports accommodating travelers from abroad.

Traffic crawled along the Niagara River bridges Wednesday, but for once, no one seemed to mind.

"There are delays, but I'm grateful for them. If any terrorist is trying to cross here, customs will be able to prevent a tragedy from happening," said Clara Gallagher of Amherst, who had just returned from Canada across the Peace Bridge.

She uttered the fears that many law-enforcement officials hope never happen: "With all the big activities planned for New Year's Eve, I would not want to see the crowds get hurt."

"They checked my van, and I'm glad for it. Anything to protect citizens," said Jean Whipke, a Town of Tonawanda resident who used the Peace Bridge on Wednesday.

"The way everything is, I don't have anything bad to say about the increased security," said Buffalo resident Teresa Baldwin, another Peace Bridge motorist.

Among the first to offer praise for the job customs officials are performing is Allen Gandell, general manager of the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission.

But he also was quick to point out the inspectors have an extremely difficult task.

About 17.7 million motor vehicle trips were made across the area's international bridges in 1998.

"The Rainbow Bridge is the second-busiest port of entry for aliens coming into the United States. The only place busier is Kennedy Airport in New York City," said Gandell, who oversees operations at the Rainbow Bridge and the Whirlpool Rapids Bridge, both in Niagara Falls, and the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge in Lewiston.

With that kind of volume, Gandell said customs inspectors have their hands more than full.

Another circumstance that makes prevention of terrorism all the more difficult is easy access to the hardware of violence, he said.

The solution, he said, is not to construct a Berlin Wall, but to do a better job at thwarting dangerous foreigners from entering the United States and Canada.

"The key is to utilize better control over allowing these people onto the continent in the first place. Canada needs to be more firm in granting refugee status and tracking the status of those people. It's my understanding the Algerian arrested last week had an outstanding deportation order against him," Gandell said.

Buffalo Police Commissioner Rocco J. Diina said he believed a tough stance must be taken against people who resort to terror.

But he, too, said it's a tough job to fend off such attacks.

"It's hard to prepare for these isolated, irrational and well-planned terrorist events," Diina said. "Being close to the border, we are taking every precaution and working closely with all other agencies."

And while motorists were taking delays in stride at the Peace Bridge on Wednesday, Robert Haddox, a West Virginia truck driver who uses the span frequently, offered a word of caution.

"If anyone was trying to bring something into the country, it would be during the bingo rushes at the Peace Bridge when motorists are hurrying to get home after bingo lets out.

"There's long lines of traffic and tempers flare and everyone is in a hurry. That's when it would happen, because inspectors are trying to move the traffic along," said Haddox.

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