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UK warns of more flight disruption in terror war
( 2004-01-04 09:40) (Agencies)

Britain said on Saturday a specific threat led to the grounding of several British Airways flights this week and warned that more cancellations might be needed to prevent another September 11-style attack.

An armed British police officer patrols at Heathrow Airport in London on January 3, 2004. London said 'specific' information led to the grounding of several British Airways flights in recent days and warned of more cancellations in a bid to prevent a repetition of the September 11 attacks, in which more than 3,000 people died. [Reuters]
Amid reports members of the militant Islamist al Qaeda group were plotting another spectacular aviation attack, Transport Secretary Alistair Darling said British security services had information supporting U.S intelligence on a risk to the canceled BA flights.

"The threat that we now face is likely to endure for many years," he added in a BBC interview, without giving more details.

"There may occasionally, from time to time, be the need to ground a particular flight...but the vast majority of people will be able to fly in the normal way."

Intelligence information led to the cancellation of BA's Flight 223 from London to Washington on Friday for the second day in a row. The same flight was held outside Washington on Wednesday after fighter jets escorted it in.

On Saturday, Flight 223 to Washington took off from London delayed by three hours because of extra security moves, including passing information to the United States, BA said.

Police with machine guns stood guard at the boarding gate while others with sniffer dogs mingled among passengers. A dozen officers quizzed all passengers before they were allowed on.

"When we take off it will have been searched so thoroughly it will probably be the safest flight in the sky," said British passenger Shirley Newman, 56.

BA, Europe's biggest airline, also scrapped Saturday's flight from London to Riyadh for security reasons, and its return on Sunday. A decision was pending on Monday's flight.


Britain's Sunday Telegraph quoted security sources as saying two al Qaeda members were at large in Britain and planned to detonate a shoe bomb or similar device in an aircraft lavatory.

In December 2001, Briton Richard Reid tried to ignite an explosive device hidden in his shoe during a flight from Paris to Miami. He was overpowered and later jailed for life.

The People newspaper said in its Sunday edition that the U.S. FBI feared an al Qaeda member may have got a job as a pilot flying a British plane to carry out a suicide attack.

The Sunday Times, citing a senior intelligence source, said security services had information of a plot by the Islamic extremist group again to hijack several jets -- including a BA plane -- simultaneously and crash them into big U.S. targets.

Some 3,000 people were killed on September 11, 2001, when airliners were hijacked and crashed into New York's two World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon in Virginia. A fourth plane crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. British officials and sources consulted by Reuters said they could not confirm any of the information about al Qaeda. They said large amounts of intelligence information came in every day and said speculation was rife.

One anti-terror police source told Reuters that no arrests had been made or materials found in connection with the British Airways security alerts in recent days.

Asked whether British authorities had information about specific threats, Transport Secretary Darling said: "Yes we do. And the reason that different flights are either grounded or there is increased security varies from time to time."

The BA groundings bring the number of cancellations of U.S.-bound international flights to seven since Christmas Eve.

Three Air France Los Angeles-Paris flights were grounded on December 24 and 25, and Air France's New York-Paris flight was diverted to Newfoundland on New Year's Day.

Aeromexico Flight 490 from Mexico City to Los Angeles was grounded on Wednesday and Thursday.

Worried about the possibility of another September 11-style attack, Washington is sharing more intelligence with other nations, has asked foreign airlines to put armed marshals on some flights and sent fighter jets to tail some incoming planes.

Security experts said governments preferred to act on flimsy information rather than risk blame after an attack.

"If, God forbid, something terrible happens and then it emerges they had information of a risk but did not do anything, they would be totally exposed politically," said Kevin Rosser, terrorism analyst at London-based Control Risks Group.

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