- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 24, 2003

Fears of terrorist attacks against the United States prompted the abrupt cancellation of six Air France flights between Paris and Los Angeles on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, stranding hundreds of holiday passengers.

Officials said two flights to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) — one of the busiest airports in the world — and a return flight from LAX to Paris were canceled yesterday because of credible threats that suspected al Qaeda terrorists on board as passengers would hijack the jetliners and use them in an attack.

Two flights from Los Angeles to Paris today and one from Paris to LAX also were canceled.

A U.S. government official confirmed the threat was from passengers aboard the aircraft, not from the cargo or the pilots. At least one of the passengers was identified as an al Qaeda operative, federal authorities said.

“As we have done with our partners in the homeland, we have also shared credible-threat information with our international partners, so they can use it to enhance aviation-security measures as a result of this threat,” the official said.

Authorities said some U.S. officials were concerned that the flights had been canceled, saying they had hoped to keep discussions with French authorities private in an attempt to lure the suspected terrorists on board, where they might have been captured.

Others said, however, that without specific information on what kind of attacks had been planned, there were additional concerns that a successful apprehension might not have been timely.

The cancellation orders came after high-level French authorities met to consider an alert from the U.S. Embassy in Paris, including names of suspicious passengers.

“This measure was taken at the request of Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin on the basis of information, currently being checked, which was gathered in the framework of Franco-American cooperation in the fight against terrorism and which was of a nature to threaten the safety of these flights,” Mr. Raffarin’s office said in a statement.

French television reports said intercepted e-mails suggesting al Qaeda could be planning an attack using civilian flights from Paris’s Charles de Gaulle Airport to the United States over Christmas were included in the information that had been gathered by U.S. officials.

They said one of the Paris to LAX flights had been scheduled for a stopover in Cincinnati, where security upgrades already had been put into place.

LAX was the target of a foiled attack by al Qaeda terrorists during the millennium celebrations four years ago.

Two years ago, almost to the day, Dec. 23, 2001, Richard C. Reid was a passenger on a flight from Paris to Miami when he attempted to ignite explosives in his tennis shoe, but was stopped by members of the flight crew. Reid, a British citizen and admitted al Qaeda member, since has pleaded guilty to attempting to kill 197 passengers and crew members aboard the American Airlines flight, which took off from Charles de Gaulle Airport.

More than 2 million travelers will pass through LAX between Dec. 19 and Jan. 4. Beginning Tuesday, curbside pickups and drop-offs were prohibited and security was at a maximum. Armed security guards are searching all cars entering the property.

“These are the tightest security measures we have implemented since the September 11 attacks,” LAX spokesman Harold Johnson said.

Passengers from Mexico also are undergoing additional screening procedures, and U.S. officials have questioned members of foreign flight crews whose names were similar to those on FBI terrorist-watch lists.

“The U.S. government has been working with a number of governments to ensure they enforce all existing security guidelines to thoroughly screen passengers and secure all areas of the airport,” the U.S. government official said.

Fighter pilots in the United States and Canada are on high alert, and Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said pilots are patrolling key cities and facilities.

Meanwhile, the Delta Airlines terminal at New York’s LaGuardia International Airport was evacuated last night, and all departing Delta flights were temporarily grounded, the Reuters News Agency reported.

The Transportation Security Administration ordered the shutdown after a female passenger set off a metal detector and entered the airport without getting a second screening, Reuters said. Airport authorities were searching for the woman, and it was not known at press time whether she was located.

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