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Australia vows action after incendiary device found on jet
Updated: 2004-09-24 09:56

Australia vowed swift action to plug gaps in its air security after an incendiary device was found on a jet operated by domestic airline Virgin Blue.

The embarrassing find Thursday comes just days after Canberra vowed new measures to prevent airborne terrorist attacks after the deadly September 9 bombing at its embassy in Jakarta. That attack prompted promises of new checks on flights out of Jakarta and tightened measures at domestic airports.

The attack has made security arguably the top issue in the campaign for the October 9 election. Transport Minister John Anderson vowed not to leave "holes unplugged" after Monday's find aboard a 737-300 at Sydney airport.

"I can tell you that we are engaging in training exercises, doubling and rechecking training levels right now as a result of this. We've already swung into action on that one," Anderson told national radio.

"We will do whatever is necessary here. We do not intend to leave holes unplugged."

An initial police report has concluded the device contained thermite, a chemical used in grenades. It was found wrapped in a cardboard toilet roll tube with a firework sparkler attached as a 30-second fuse.

Virgin Blue commercial operations chief David Huttner said a baggage handler found the device in the cargo hold. The finder had failed to follow correct safety procedures in taking it directly to airport security officials, he said. However, he denied that it could have exploded on its own.

"It was not something that goes boom, it was something that burns which means somebody had to be there to light it," Huttner said. "It was clearly placed there by somebody who had access to the airfield because it didn't go through checked baggage."

The aircraft had just flown in from Maroochydore on the touristic Sunshine coast of Queensland state. Huttner suggested a disgruntled airport worker may have planted the device deliberately, saying a passenger could not have taken it as it was found in the cargo hold, a suggestion strongly disputed by trade unionists.

"We believe it was an airport worker with an agenda," Huttner said.

Officials of the Transport Workers Union said it was "absurd" to suggest that a disgruntled worker might have staged the incident and criticised training procedures for airline staff.

A transport ministry spokesman said the device did not appear to have been on the aircraft in flight and said there were concerns procedures had not been correctly followed. The staff member in question had recently undergone security training, the spokesman said.

The embassy bombing has been claimed by Islamic extremist network Jemaah Islamiah (JI), the group blamed for the 2002 Bali bombings, which killed 88 Australians. It has prompted concerns about a possible new terrorist attack on an Australian target before the election.

Analysts have suggested Islamists may be trying to influence the vote outcome, as a bloody attack on trains in Spain did there in March.

Virgin Blue, the Australian joint venture between British carrier Virgin Atlantic and Australia's Patrick Corp., was set up in 2001 as a low-cost carrier following the collapse of domestic airline Ansett.

Australia is widely seen as among the top targets of Islamic extremists due to Prime Minister John Howard's strong support of last year's US-led invasion of Iraq. However, to date no successful terrorist attack has been carried out on Australian soil.

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