Britain foils major bomb plot
TIGHT SECURITY : A police officer on the alert at London’s Stansted Airport as security levels in Britain were raised to the highest possible level.
Alleged plan involved blowing up US-bound jets.
21 people arrested in dawn raids in London, Birmingham Thousands stranded as flights are cancelled.
BRITAIN said yesterday that an attempt at ‘mass murder on an unimaginable scale’ involving blowing up as many as 10 US-bound planes had been foiled, putting both nations on maximum terror alert and snarling air traffic worldwide.
Police said 21 people had been arrested in dawn raids yesterday, in or near London and Birmingham, in what appears to be a homegrown plot to smuggle explosives onto planes in hand baggage.
Media reports described the men as ‘British born’ men mostly of ‘Pakistani origin’, although police would not comment officially.
Security sources told The Straits Times that as many as 10 planes that were headed for destinations including Washington,New York and Los Angeles were targeted.
The security sources also said some of the plotters had been under surveillance for months and could have been arrested earlier, but that authorities decided to wait until the day of the planned attack to ensure none of the conspirators escaped.
Deputy Commissioner Peter Clarke, head of the police’s anti-terror branch, confirmed that the investigation began months ago, and said police took ‘urgent action’ overnight because the operation had reached a ‘critical point’, but did not elaborate.
British Home Secretary John Reid said police were now confident ‘the main players have been accounted for’, although he was careful to warn that the operation was far from over.
Across the Atlantic, US Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said the plan was ‘suggestive of an Al-Qaeda plot’.
Both Britain and the US raised their security alerts to the highest possible levels for the first time since the Sept 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Thousands of policemen and security agents surrounded British airports and key London transportation centres, and US air marshals are being sent to provide extra air security. Airport departure halls were jammed with people as airlines cancelled flights.
Passengers were only being allowed to carry the barest essentials – including passports and wallets – in transparent plastic bags, adding to the chaos as thousands attempted to sort out their luggage. Liquids were also banned from flights out of Britain, and passengers with babies were made to publicly taste their food.
Mr Chertoff said investigators believe the plotters planned to bring liquids on board, ‘each one of which would be benign, but mixed together could be used to create a bomb’.
The detonators, he said, would be ‘electronic devices or other common devices’, and Britain also banned mobile phones and portable music players from flights.
It was the same story in America, where passengers were hand-searched and not allowed carry-on luggage, as well as being ordered to pour away any liquids they carried.
Airlines also cancelled hundreds of flights in and out of London yesterday, while planes bound from Europe into Heathrow Airport were temporarily grounded, leaving thousands of passengers stranded.
Shares in European airlines fell, with British Airways down more than 5 per cent, while the pound fell against the dollar and the euro, but analysts expected any economic impact to be short-lived.
It was not clear yesterday how long the stepped-up security measures would remain in place, although Britain’s Department of Transport said it was hoped to be for ‘a limited period’.
– ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY NEO HUI MIN
ADDITIONAL INFORMATION FROM AFP, REUTERS, AP
LIQUID CHEMICAL DEVICE’
THE plot was believed to involve a ‘liquid chemical’ device. US Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said the plotters had ‘planned to carry the components of the bombs disguised as beverages, electronic devices or other common objects’. Components could then be mixed on board to create explosives.