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UK says security threat in Saudi, BA suspends flights
( 2003-08-14 09:22) (Agencies)

Britain said on Wednesday it had credible evidence of a security threat to its aviation interests in Saudi Arabia and British Airways suspended all flights to the kingdom.

Passengers await flight information after British Airways suspended all flights to Saudi Arabia until further notice at Heathrow Airport, London August 13, 2003.  [Reuters]
The British announcements followed two clashes in three days in the Saudi capital Riyadh between police and Islamic militants that began with a shootout on Sunday and continued with a full-blown gun battle on Tuesday.

A senior Saudi official in Washington has said 10 gunmen arrested after Sunday's clash were a "major cell that were targeting a British target."

British Airways, the only British carrier that flies to the kingdom, said it had decided to suspend flights after consultations with the British government.

"There is credible intelligence of a serious threat to UK aviation interests in Saudi Arabia," a government spokesman said.

An official at Riyadh's King Khalid airport told Reuters: "We respect (British Airways') decision, but there is no real threat to any airline in the kingdom. We think that the flights might be resumed within five days."

Other European carriers said they had no plans to stop Saudi flights. When a similar warning of a threat to British aircraft in Kenya was issued in May this year, British Airways was the only major airline to suspend flights. They resumed in July.


As the world's top oil supplier, Saudi Arabia is vital to the world economy and a spate of bombings and bloody clashes there has raised concerns over world fuel supplies.

The bombing of a Western compound in Riyadh in May, in which 35 people were killed, triggered a crackdown by Saudi authorities on Islamic militants. Since then at least 16 suspects and 11 police have been killed in a series of clashes.

U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said a document found during the round-up of suspects this week in Saudi Arabia indicated that King Khalid airport had been under surveillance, presumably for a possible attack.

The document did not specify what type of attack but mentioned British planes, one official said, adding: "It's clear that they were paying attention to British planes."

Another U.S. official said the State Department was likely to revise its travel warning to U.S. citizens for Saudi Arabia.

Both Britain and the United States have already warned against non-essential travel to the kingdom.

Passengers turning up at London's Heathrow airport for Wednesday's flight to the Red Sea port of Jeddah were handed letters saying they could call the airline for a refund.

"Personally, I think British Airways is overreacting to certain things. They ought to show us the evidence or tell us exactly why they have canceled all the flights," said Londoner Arfan Ali, 25, who had planned a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca with his father Mohammed.

Britain said on Tuesday it believed the gunmen who battled Saudi police on Sunday might have been planning attacks on British interests, and that the suspects had escaped despite Saudi statements that 10 had been arrested.

Further clashes on Tuesday led to a five-hour gun battle in Riyadh, in which four police and one gunman were killed. Saudi officials said they arrested five men and another seven escaped.

"We are closing in fast on these terrorists and it is better for them to surrender and stop these attacks," said Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz.

British Airways suspended flights to Kenya between May 15 and July 2 this year after the British government warned it had intelligence Islamic militants in the East African state might target British planes.

Militants in Kenya tried to shoot down an Israeli airliner with a missile last November.

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