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The rush to fight missiles aimed at planes

Thousands of shoulder-fired weapons are unaccounted for, intensifying a search for ways to reduce terror threat to jets.

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You can be pretty sure that when those two lost pilots in a little Cessna wandered out of Pennsylvania and into highly restricted air space near the Capitol and the White House last week, it wasn't just F-16 fighter jets and Blackhawk helicopters that were prepared to end their journey. Government men in black likely were posted atop key buildings with shoulder-fired missiles as well.

Such weaponry has been part of the US arsenal for decades. But just as many "bad guys" as "good guys" may be armed with MANPADS (man-portable air defense systems) these days, and some experts say that it would be far too easy for one of them to attack an American airliner. As a result, diplomats and engineers are scrambling to reduce the threat.

Intelligence sources estimate that as many as 27 terrorist and guerrilla groups around the world have such weapons, thanks to the hundreds provided by the CIA to anti-Soviet Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s, plus Russian and Chinese missiles sold on the black market. While much of Iraq's Saddam Hussein-era arsenal has been captured or destroyed, US officials have not been able to account for some 4,000 MANPADS there.

Fighting the proliferation of MANPADS

What can be done to counter the threat?

Earlier this year, the US and Russia agreed to destroy cheap shoulder-fired missiles that can bring down an airliner, and the US is providing technical support to other countries (including Nicaragua, Bosnia, Cambodia and Liberia) to destroy such antiaircraft missiles.

But thousands of cheap MANPADS remain in circulation - many of the estimated 500,000 to 750,000 produced since the 1970s and bearing such names as Stinger (US), Strela (Russian), Vanguard (Chinese), Blowpipe (British), and Mistral (French). At least 5,000 of those are estimated to be outside any government's control, and experts say just one could do great damage to the airline industry - as much as $70 billion in economic losses from a single attack.

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