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SEATTLE (AP) — U.S. customs agents detained 22 Chinese nationals believed to be part of a human smuggling operation early Wednesday after they arrived in a 40-foot cargo container aboard a ship from Shanghai.

Port of Seattle security guards spotted the 18 men and four women about 1 a.m. at Terminal 18, determined that they were not crew members from the China Shipping Line's Rotterdam and summoned federal authorities, said Michael Milne, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

All appeared in their 20s and 30s and in good physical condition after about two weeks in a 40-foot container that was loaded onto the ship in Shanghai, Milne said.

"There was plenty of food and water," he said. "The conditions are certainly not deluxe, but everyone came off in apparently good health."

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., mentioned the smuggling operation in a speech on the Senate floor Wednesday morning about a maritime cargo security bill she introduced last year.

"That incident is a stark reminder that we are not doing enough to keep our cargo container system secure," Murray said. "This appears to have been a case of human smuggling, but that cargo container could have been filled with anything from a dirty bomb to a cell of terrorists."

None of the 22 appeared to be in control or directing the others, nor was there evidence of "any real criminal or terrorist activity … just an alien smuggling operation," Milne said.

They were being interviewed with the aid of a translator pending detention, further investigation and possible deportation proceedings.

Milne said it could take several days to determine whether they'll be deported, held as material witnesses as part of a criminal investigation, or face other immigration proceedings, such as asylum hearings.

Milne said the stowaways are believed to be part of an organized smuggling ring, but said he had no information about how much they had paid to make the voyage or who ran the operation.

The container, the second from the ground in a stack of four, had been flagged for a special examination which had not been conducted before the group was caught, Milne said. He would not reveal why it had been flagged but said it was equipped with water bottles, food, blankets and toilet facilities.

It was apparently the first detection of a human smuggling attempt using a cargo container in Seattle since a flurry along the U.S. and Canadian West Coast in 2000 and 2001. Almost all of those caught were deported, but three of 18 in a shipping container aboard the NYK Cape May died before reaching Seattle in January 2000.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said improving screening of cargo coming into U.S. ports will require better cooperation with trading partners and quicker deployment of scanning technology in foreign ports.

"It's high time Congress passed the Commerce Committee bill I've worked on to require cargo to be screened at the port of origin," Cantwell said in a statement e-mailed to The Associated Press.

Republican Mike McGavick, a former Safeco Corp. chief executive who's running against Cantwell in November, said: "We're not making enough progress and we need a change — a change in who represents our state's interests in Washington, D.C."

The Rotterdam docked about 9 a.m. Tuesday and was carrying general cargo. Based on the ship's manifest, investigators believe it left Shanghai on March 23, Milne said.

Four days earlier, it was in Hong Kong, and the following day, it was in Yantian, China. After Shanghai, the ship made a stop at Nangbo, China, then Pusan, South Korea, before heading for Seattle, Milne said.

Early Wednesday, the stowaways apparently pried open the container, lowered themselves about seven feet to the ground and tried to slip out of the secured terminal area, he said.

About half were discovered by a guard within the terminal and the rest were spotted trying to get out through a gate, Milne said.

Once they were intercepted, "there was no attempt to flee or hide," he said. "They were cooperative."

Port and city police as well as federal authorities established a cordon, checked cars leaving Harbor Island, where the ship docked, and were confident no one who might have been in the container escaped detection, Milne said.

The Malta-flagged Rotterdam left the port early Wednesday afternoon after authorities determined there was no reason to hold it in Seattle.

Two staff members who answered the phone at a company listed as China Shipping Line's agent in Seattle declined to comment. The company, Norton Lilly, based in Mobile, Ala., did not immediately return a message seeking comment.

Copyright 2006 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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