August 10, 2006

UK arrests 24 in plane plot

By Michael Holden and Peter Graff

LONDON (Reuters) - British police foiled a plot by would-be
suicide bombers to simultaneously blow up several planes flying
to the United States, arresting 24 people days before they
could attack, officials said on Thursday.

Disclosure of the alleged plan to smuggle bombs on aircraft
disguised as drinks immediately brought drastic new security
measures and chaos at airports on both sides of the Atlantic.

British security sources said they had been watching the
suspects for eight months, and London police's Deputy
Commissioner Paul Stephenson described their goal as "mass
murder on an unimaginable scale."

"The plan was to have multiple suicide bombings on
aircraft, essentially at the same time," said U.S. Homeland
Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.

A U.S. intelligence official said the planned bombings were
just days away, with a dry run planned first: "They were a
couple of days from a test, and a few days from doing it."

President Bush said the plan was a stark reminder his
country was at "war with Islamic fascists."

Britain's Interior Minister John Reid said police were
confident all the main figures had been caught, but the U.S. TV
network ABC quoted unnamed American officials as saying five
suspects were still on the loose. Police declined to comment.

Pakistan said its intelligence agencies helped thwart the
plot and had arrested an unspecified number of people.

The suspected plot raised the specter of a strike to rival
the scale of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United
States ahead of their fifth anniversary, and came 13 months
after four British suicide bombers killed 52 commuters on
London transport.

A U.S. intelligence official said the plotters planned to
target about 10 planes, though not cities on the ground.

Chertoff said the plot was in the final stages of planning.

"The terrorists planned to carry the components of the
bombs, including liquid explosive ingredients and detonating
devices, disguised as beverages, electronic devices or other
common objects," he said.

He said he saw signs of al Qaeda's methods in the plot, but
it was too early to draw conclusions on whether the global
militant group behind the September 11 attacks was involved.

British police gave no details of the people they had
arrested, but the U.S. Homeland Security department said all
were British citizens. Raids were carried out in the capital
London, southeast England and Britain's second city,

Pakistan gave no details about the people arrested there,
but a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said her country had played
a "very important role in uncovering and breaking this
international terrorist network."


Both Britain and the United States imposed tough new
security measures on flights, causing chaos and delays.

Departure halls were jammed and scores of flights to and
from London were canceled. Travelers with babies were forced to
taste their baby food before boarding.

In Britain, all hand luggage was banned, and passengers
were allowed on board only with a single clear plastic bag with
items from an official list. In the United States, authorities
banned liquids and gels from carry-on bags.

Airport authorities told people to stay home if they could.

Exasperated passengers looked on the bright side.

"We are just happy to be alive," said Blair Ahearn, 47, a
passenger from near Chicago in London's Heathrow airport, the
world's busiest for international flights. "It could be much
worse than a crowded airport and long lines."

Chertoff said U.S. carriers were targeted. A U.S. official
speaking on condition of anonymity said Continental Airlines,
United Airlines and American Airlines flights were the focus.

The United States raised the threat level for British-U.S.
passenger flights to "red," its top level, for the first time.
Britain raised its threat level to "critical," its highest
rating, which means "an attack is expected imminently."

Shares in European airlines fell. British Airways dropped
more than 5 percent. The pound fell against the dollar and the
euro. Oil fell to below $76 a barrel on fears the security
threat might slow growth worldwide and cut oil demand.

Tony Blair's office said the prime minister, on holiday in
the Caribbean, had briefed President Bush.

Last month, al Qaeda called on Muslims to fight those who
backed Israel's attacks on Lebanon and warned of attacks unless
U.S. and British forces pulled out of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Al Qaeda hijacked passenger aircraft in September 2001 to
destroy the World Trade Center in New York. Briton Richard Reid
was arrested in December 2001 for trying to blow up a plane
headed to the United States using a bomb in his shoe.

The British Airports Authority asked all European carriers
to suspend flights to Heathrow. British Airways canceled
short-haul flights to and from the airport, which processes
180,000 passengers a day in the peak summer period.

(Additional reporting by Katherine Baldwin, Adrian Croft,
Peter Griffiths, Catherine Hornby, Gideon Long, Jeremy Lovell,
Jason Neely, Michael Smith in London, Todd Eastham and Deborah
Charles in Washington and Simon Cameron-Moore in Islamabad)