Air traffic disrupted world over
THE BRITISH police said on Thursday they had thwarted a plot to blow up aircraft in mid-flight between Britain and the United States. "This was intended to be mass murder on an unimaginable scale," said London police Deputy Commissioner Paul Stephenson.
It is thought the plan was to detonate explosive devices smuggled in hand luggage on to as many as 10 aircraft. The conspiracy is believed to have involved a "liquid chemical" device.
The authorities suspect there could have been three waves of attacks on different days, targeting three planes each time. Another source said the plot was to be carried soon as the planners were almost ready with enough material to carry out their plans.
Peter Clarke, the head of the Metropolitan police's anti-terror branch, said the operation had involved an "unprecedented level of surveillance" and had reached a "critical point" on Wednesday night when officers move to "protect the public".
The police were continuing to search premises in Buckinghamshire, north London and other undisclosed places. Although 21 people were arrested from London, Birmingham and High Wycombe, sources said the searches would continue.
About the people detained so far, the police only said the "principal characters" suspected of being involved in the plot were all British-born and the community leaders were informed. But a news channel said all were British Muslims and some were from Pakistan.
US Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff said the UK operation suggested links to al-Qaeda. A raft of stringent security and precautionary police measures were imposed at Heathrow and other UK airports following a red alert over the threat to aircraft.
Airlines across the world cancelled hundreds of flights in and out of London. The security measures caused chaos at Heathrow. Several parts of the airport were shut, leading to a massive queues.
Security was also increased at London Underground stations and patrolling made more visible in central London. Thousands of passengers were stranded. All incoming flights that were not already in the air were banned. The airport authorities said the stoppage was necessary because of unprecedented congestion at the airport.
The Department for Transport set out the details of the security measures at airports. Passengers are not allowed to take any hand luggage on to any flights in the UK, the department said. Only the barest essentials — including passports and wallets — will be allowed to be carried on board in transparent plastic bags. Heathrow officials said all milk for babies would have to be tasted by an “accompanying passenger”.
All passengers must be hand searched, and their footwear and all items they are carrying X-ray screened. Laptop computers, mobile phones and iPods are among the items banned from being carried on board.
The restrictions caused delays of up to five hours on some flights, and the problems are expected to last for several days.