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Mass counterterrorism test begins

The largest field test of the nation's ability to respond to a terrorist attack with chemical or biological weapons began Saturday, involving Cabinet secretaries, governors and municipal leaders in two cities.

The counterterrorism exercise called "TOPOFF" involved a simulated chemical weapon attack on Portsmouth, N.H., followed by a simulated biological weapon attack in Denver. The $3.5-million program, mandated by Congress, was paid for by the Department of Justice and the federal Office of Emergency Management.

The Portsmouth scenario involved an explosion at a mock charity event that led to a number of "fatalities" and "injuries."

"It's a test of people's abilities to respond to what has happened," said Mike Beeman, FEMA spokesman in Portsmouth.

The test was expected to last 10 days. Attorney General Janet Reno, Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala, and FEMA Director James Lee Witt, and state and local leaders were expected to take part.

A separate, but related counterterrorism test also was scheduled to start Saturday in Washington and adjacent Prince Georges County, Md., by the FBI, FEMA, and the Energy Department.

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