- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 7, 2003

LONDON, Jan. 7 (UPI) — Counter-terrorism officials in Britain decided Tuesday to hold six North African men for further questioning about traces of deadly ricin found in a London residence, a discovery that — depending on the amount of poison — may unravel a chemical terror plot.

A joint operation of London police forces swooped down on premises in the north and east of the British capital early Sunday morning, carrying away six men, one woman and "a quantity of material and items of equipment," according to a police statement. A small amount of the material tested positive for ricin, it added.

Police did not announce the arrests until Tuesday, the same day Prime Minister Tony Blair addressed U.K. ambassadors about Britain's international role and the threat of chaos, and Defense Minister Geoffrey Hoon announced troop deployments to the Persian Gulf.

Health and terrorism experts have listed ricin, a natural compound extracted from castor beans, as a potential chemical weapon that can kill in tiny amounts. It requires injection to be truly effective, however, though inhaling ricin as an aerosol can also be deadly. Most experts consider ricin a moderate threat. Fairly easy to make, difficult to disseminate broadly, its value as a weapon of terror would be largely psychological.

Police forces from Britain's Anti-Terrorist Branch, its London Special Branch and the Security Service acted on intelligence tip-offs and reportedly had had the suspects under surveillance. The six men were described as in their late teens, 20s and 30s and were North African, though no country was specified. North African countries include Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt.

One of the men was arrested in a residence in Wood Green, north London, where the material and equipment was confiscated. The woman arrested has been released, police said.

So far it does not appear the amount of ricin in the residence was substantial. Analysis at Britain's Defense Science and Technology Laboratories is continuing, however, as is "intensive police investigations," according to the statement.

Nor have British authorities, at least as yet, linked the discovery to al Qaida. Instructions for making the toxin were reportedly uncovered in Afghanistan last year, and in September Blair listed ricin as one of the chemical weapons Iraq was believed capable of producing. But as of Tuesday evening police were silent about possible sources and motivations behind the poison's presence, including whether they believed the suspects were acting alone or with support of a larger group.

"While our message is still 'alert not alarm,' we would reiterate our earlier appeals for the public to remain vigilant and aware and report anything suspicious to the police," the Metropolitan Police Service said.

Hoon, the defense minister, on Tuesday called the news of ricin a "disturbing development," the British Broadcasting Corp. reported.

Ricin acts by blocking the production of proteins, causing cell death. Chewing a dozen or so castor seeds has been known to cause accidental death, and ricin is some 6,000 times more potent than cyanide — a toxin found in trace amounts in apricot and peach pits.

Perhaps the most famous case of deliberate ricin poisoning happened in 1978, when Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov was apparently jabbed with a ricin-laced umbrella tip on London's Waterloo Bridge. He died shortly thereafter.

No antidote to ricin is yet known, but in September the U.S. biotechnology company BioPharma Inc. announced it would work with a Texas university to develop a vaccine against the aerosolized form of ricin.

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