UNITED NATIONS (AP) – World leaders began signing a global treaty Wednesday making it a crime to possess radioactive material or weapons with the intention of committing a terrorist act or to damage a nuclear facility.

The Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism was the 13th anti-terrorism treaty to be adopted by the U.N. General Assembly but the first since the Sept. 11 terror attacks on the United States.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose country sponsored the seven-year effort leading to the treaty’s adoption by consensus in April, was the first leader to sign the document Wednesday morning at a desk in a makeshift hall on the sidelines of the U.N. summit.

President Bush signed next, followed by French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, as the first of more than 50 leaders who were expected to sign by the end of Thursday. The treaty must be ratified by 22 countries to take effect.

Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin, who was the fourth to sign, said it was important that the document be followed quickly by a broad treaty covering all aspects of terrorism – an effort that has been blocked for years by disagreements over defining terrorism and other concerns.

“With the other signatories we have taken an important step forward in reducing the risk of nuclear terrorism,” Martin said. “That being said, if we are to make the world a safer place, clearly we need a more comprehensive approach to disarmament and proliferation, and we must get on with it.”

A U.N. document that the national leaders are to adopt at the end of the three-day summit stresses the “need to make all efforts to reach an agreement on and conclude a comprehensive convention on international terrorism” in the next year.

The nuclear terrorism treaty makes it a crime for any person to possess radioactive material or a radioactive device with the intent to cause death or injury or damage property or the environment. It also would be a crime to damage a civilian or military nuclear facility.

Threatening to use radioactive material or devices – or unlawfully demanding nuclear material or other radioactive substances – also is outlawed.

Such activities would have to involve actions across national boundaries. Offenses committed by people within their own country are excluded, along with the activities of military forces during conflict.

Countries that are party to the treaty will be required to make the covered acts criminal offenses under their national laws, “punishable by appropriate penalties which take into account the grave nature of these offenses.”

The treaty also calls on countries to cooperate in related investigations and to detain people suspected in such crimes, as well as outlining the rights of the detainees.

Steven Welsh, a research analyst and legal expert with the Center for Defense Information, welcomed the emphasis on international cooperation and using the rule of law to fight terror.

“It’s an important step toward finding a more comprehensive way of dealing with terrorism,” he said.

Russia began campaigning for the treaty in 1997, but it was stymied for years because some countries believed the draft was trying to define terrorism and they fear such a definition would implicate those involved in independence struggles, such as the Palestinians.

Diplomats said the roadblock was broken late last year when the 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference decided the treaty could focus on criminalizing specific actions – in this instance, nuclear attacks – as other anti-terrorism treaties have done.

The drafting committee then quickly agreed on a text April 1, leaving the difficult issue of defining terrorism to a new overall convention on terrorism.

All states that sign the treaty must adopt measures to make clear that acts designed to provoke terror in the general public or in specific groups cannot be justified under any circumstances “by considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or other similar nature.”

The convention is one of 32 treaties being acted on during the summit that began Wednesday to mark the 60th anniversary of the world body, said Palitha Kohona, chief of the U.N. treaty section.

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