- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 25, 2003

From combined dispatches

Air France announced last night that flights between Los Angeles and Paris would resume today. Cancellations in the past two days, amid fears of a terrorist strike, stranded nearly 2,000 passengers.

A French Interior Ministry spokesman said nine persons booked on Air France’s Flight AF 68, which was canceled, were questioned and released without being charged. Four were Americans, two German, one Algerian, one French and one Belgian, the spokesman said.

French authorities said they had found little evidence to support the intelligence. A spokesman for the Interior Ministry said the investigation was all but on hold.

[The London Daily Telegraph reported: A spokesman for French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin said the decision to cancel the flights came early on Christmas Eve after U.S. authorities notified France that “two or three” suspect people, possibly Tunisian nationals, were on the manifests of three Los Angeles-bound flights.

[Mr. Raffarin’s spokesman said the United States had threatened to refuse the planes permission to land if they took off. A French judicial official said the name of a Tunisian national with a pilot’s license had appeared on the U.S. list of questionable people who might attempt to board a flight. But French intelligence officials determined that the man was in Tunisia and had no plans to leave the country.

[The official added that the Tunisian had no criminal record and did not belong to any Islamic radical groups. U.S. sources hit back at French skepticism, saying American intelligence agencies had intercepted e-mail messages from terror network al Qaeda suggesting another September 11-style attack was being plotted for the Christmas holiday.

[Al Qaeda messages referred specifically to Air France and even gave a flight number, officials said. Other warnings have been issued about flights by the Mexican carrier, AeroMexico, it was reported. U.S. officials said they fear Air France has been infiltrated by Islamic extremists and have criticized French cooperation in providing details of passengers on U.S.-bound flights.]

“We remain concerned about al Qaeda’s desire to use an aircraft as a weapon,” said Brian Roehrkasse, a spokesman for the Homeland Security Department.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell spoke to French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin by telephone Wednesday about the threat, officials said. The conversation was one of several contacts with other governments over what the U.S. intelligence community described as a substantial jump in intercepts of threat-related communications, a State Department official said.

It said some of the suspects had the same names as members of al Qaeda and the Taliban, driven from power in Afghanistan in late 2001 by the United States after the September 11 attacks. CIA, FBI and Homeland Security officials declined comment on the report.

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