Thursday, August 10, 2006

Plot to blow up planes headed to U.S. foiled

Plot to blow up planes headed to U.S. foiled
By FT reporters
Published: August 10 2006 08:25 | Last updated: August 10 2006 16:39
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2006

The UK was put on its highest state of alert on Thursday after British police said they had foiled a terrorist plot to blow up transatlantic passenger aircraft in mid-flight. The announcement followed a number of arrests overnight. It is believed that flights from the UK to the US were the principal target.

“Overnight the police, with the full knowledge of ministers, have carried out a major counter-terrorism operation to disrupt what we believe to be a major threat to UK and international partners,” said John Reid, home secretary, adding: “We think we have the main players in this conspiracy”.

Mr Reid stressed the seriousness of the incident. “Had this plot been carried out the loss of life to innocent civilians would have been on an unprecedented scale,” he said.

In a statement, police said a major terrorist plot had been disrupted in a joint pre-planned intelligence-led operation by the Metropolitan Police’s anti-terrorist branch and security services.

Police said they believed the aim was to detonate explosive devices smuggled on board the aircraft in hand luggage.

‘‘This was intended to be mass murder on an unimaginable scale,” said deputy commissioner Paul Stephenson.

Twenty-five people had been arrested, commissioner Stephenson added. The majority of the arrests were made in London with some in the Thames Valley, west of London, and Birmingham. Of the 25 people arrested, 21 remained in custody and searches were ongoing at a number of addresses, and nine homes were evacuated in High Wycombe. Police believe all the ‘major players’ involved in the terror plot are in custody.

MI5, the UK home security service, said it had raised its threat level to “critical” from “severe”, indicating that the threat was imminent. The US also raised its threat level to the highest level for commercial flights from the UK to the US.

In the US security officials were very specific about what they believed to be the nature of the terror plot. Michael Chertoff, homeland security secretary, described a plan to use ‘liquid’ explosives disguised as soft drinks and carried in hand luggage. He said he believed the plot, which bore some of the hallmarks of al-Qaeda, was “quite close to the execution phase.”

Meanwhile there were reports later in the day of an attempted hijacking of a Qatari Airlines plane flying from Jordan to Qatar. A spokeswoman for the airline told Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based news network, that a man tried to force his way into the cockpit of the plane but was overpowered by crew and passengers.

Travel chaos

The country’s airports were gripped by chaos. In the morning, London’s Heathrow airport was closed to all in-bound aircraft, after BAA, which operates the UK’s main airports, asked that all flights still on the ground should not depart for the airport. National Air Traffic Services, which runs UK air traffic control, said flights already heading for Heathrow would be allowed to land.

Passengers faced disruption and lengthy check-in delays and were advised that they could not take hand luggage on board flights. All liquids, except for essential medicines, were banned from being taken on board. Milk for babies would be allowed on board but must be tasted by the accompanying passenger, BAA said.

British Airways said it had cancelled all its short-haul flights to and from Heathrow for the day. BA also announced that customers not wishing to travel on Thursday can get a refund or rebook to travel up to December 1.

BAA said it forsaw a return to normal airport operations on Friday, but with the new restrictions in place.

Prime minister Tony Blair, who is on holiday in the Caribbean, had briefed US President George Bush overnight, a spokesman said.

The news sparked a sharp fall in London stocks, with the FTSE 100 index of blue-chip stocks down more than 76 points or 1.3% by lunchtime. But by mid-afternoon, the FTSE 100 had recovered slightly to 5813.2, down only 48 points or 0.8% since the morning.

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Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2006


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