- The Washington Times - Friday, January 2, 2004

A “credible” informant’s tip about suspected terrorist activity prompted officials to detain a British Airways flight at Washington Dulles International Airport on Wednesday night and cancel other flights from London to Dulles Thursday and yesterday, said an official of the Department of Homeland Security.

“It’s credible information about particular flight routes,” said the Homeland Security official, who asked not to be identified.

Security agents on New Year’s Eve detained the passengers of British Airways Flight 223 for several hours on the tarmac at Dulles as they compared passenger manifests with information from informants. Manifests typically include the names, contact information and itineraries of those who purchase airline tickets.

The security agents passed on their information to the British government, which led British Airways to cancel Flight 223 from London’s Heathrow Airport to Dulles Thursday and yesterday. The cancellation of the inbound flights forced airline officials to cancel the reciprocal outbound flights that were scheduled to use the same aircraft.

British Airways also has canceled its flight today from London to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on security advice from the British government, airline officials said.

“They make the decision to cancel the flights,” the Homeland Security official said.

No terrorist-related activity or incidents have been reported.

Homeland Security officials yesterday denied an ABC News report that the government had information that terrorists were planning to crash an airliner in Washington.

“It’s absolutely wrong,” said department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse, who declined to provide details about threat information.

Each of the London-to-Washington flights bore the number 223. Two flights between Mexico and Los Angeles, one Wednesday and one Thursday, were canceled for similar reasons.

A New York-to-Paris Air France jetliner made an unscheduled landing in the Canadian Maritimes on New Year’s Day because of security concerns. Officials comparing luggage and passenger lists discovered unaccompanied baggage aboard the Air France plane, which landed so that the bag could be removed before it resumed its trip to France about four hours later, officials said.

Air France officials said in a statement that the passenger whose bag was left on the jetliner flies the airline often and is well-known to the company’s personnel, but that the bag was removed as a precaution.

FBI officials yesterday said some of the intelligence that led to earlier cancellations of Air France flights during Christmas week involved a terror plot involving a Tunisian who is named on the U.S. master terror watch list.

A name similar to the Tunisian’s appeared on the manifest of one of the flights, but turned out to be a youth, FBI officials said. Interrogations of passengers with other names that concerned the FBI turned up nothing sinister, the officials said.

“We had a name connected with a terror plot and it showed up on the manifest and we didn’t have a full biographical information, so we take those precautions until you can assure yourself things are OK,” a senior FBI official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The FBI is investigating the discovery of two dead men in the wheel wells of airliners arriving at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City during the past two weeks. On Tuesday, the body of one man was found on a British Airways plane arriving from London; the body of another man was found last week on a flight arriving from Jamaica.

“I don’t know that there is any reason to believe that there’s any terrorism connection,” said one federal law-enforcement official, adding that it appeared the men were stowaways who died from exposure during the flights.

Yesterday, security was tight at Dulles’ British Airways counter, and travelers expressed frustration and relief over the cancellations, which have stranded passengers on both sides of the Atlantic. British Airways usually has three daily flights in and out of Dulles.

Disgruntled families struggled to learn the status of their relatives’ flights, which were updated hourly.

“I am irritated,” D.C. law student Deepa Menon, 28, said upon learning that Flight 223 was canceled less than two hours before takeoff yesterday. “I am sure there are reasons, but I do wish we had known what was going on earlier.”

Rekha Joshi, 25, who was visiting relatives here, said the airlines “are looking out for the passengers’ interest” in canceling flights amid security concerns. Still, she said, it was “very inconvenient” to learn that her midnight flight to London was canceled yesterday and that she would have to travel to Chicago to catch a flight home.

Meanwhile, officials at Baltimore-Washington International Airport in Linthicum, Md., said they have increased security measures there, but nothing out of the ordinary has occurred.

The heightened security measures at Dulles follow the Bush administration’s raising of the national terrorism alert level from Code Yellow, or elevated risk, to Code Orange, high risk, on Dec. 21.

Officials at the North American Aerospace Defense Command (Norad) said fighter pilots are on high alert at bases across the country to intercept — and shoot down, if necessary — any hijacked commercial airliners. Norad has scrambled fighter jets or escorted commercial airliners more than 1,600 times since the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Jet fighters in a combat air patrol escorted the British Airways flight to Dulles on New Year’s Eve.

“Sometimes they’re scrambled because someone has violated a restricted airspace, sometimes they’re scrambled because an airliner will squawk an emergency [frequency] … and there are other situations we can’t discuss,” said Air Force Lt. Col. Robert Garza, a Norad spokesman.

Matthew Cella and Guy Taylor contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire-service reports.

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