- The Washington Times - Monday, August 14, 2006

LONDON — The government yesterday downgraded the terror alert triggered by a plot to bomb airliners in flight across the Atlantic from top-level “critical” to “severe,” but warned there was still a serious threat of attack.

While insisting that police had arrested all the main suspects, Home Secretary John Reid said a terrorist strike remained “highly likely” and that “there may be other people out there who may be planning an attack” against Britain.

Anger mounted at Britain’s crowded airports as long lines for security checks inched along, prompting pleas for the government to call in police and troops to ease the pressure.

Police and intelligence agents continued questioning 23 suspects arrested when authorities disclosed a terrorist plot involving the use of liquid explosives to blow up as many as 10 passenger jets flying between Britain and the United States. A 24th man was released shortly after his arrest.

Interrogation reportedly was focusing on links between the suspects, all British Muslims, and associates in Pakistan, where up to 17 others were thought to be in custody.

One of the 17 has been identified as British national Rashid Rauf, brother of Tayib Rauf, who was among those arrested in Britain.

Tayib Rauf is thought to have connections with a senior al Qaeda operative in Afghanistan. But the Home Office in London refused to say whether the government had formally requested Rashid Rauf’s extradition.

Although Britain and Pakistan have no bilateral treaty, a special one-time request can be made under international practices, legal analysts told the Times newspaper in London.

The Associated Press reported that an Islamic charity in Pakistan was suspected of providing funds for the British plotters, but the charity, identified as Jamaat al-Dawat, denied it.

“This is a bogus story,” spokesman Yahya Mujahid told the Times. “It has nothing to do with reality.”

Police in London have been granted until tomorrow to question the suspects, although they can apply for further extensions, seven days at a time up to 28 days, after which they would have to charge or release them.

Britain’s reduction of the terror threat level coincided with similar action in the United States, where the Department of Homeland Security downgraded the perceived threat for flights from Britain from Code Red to Code Orange.

Despite the downgrading, Mr. Reid said, “there is still a very serious threat of an attack. The threat level is at ‘severe,’ indicating the high likelihood of an attempted terrorist attack at some stage, and I urge the public to remain vigilant.”

Many of Britain’s airports — including its largest, London’s Heathrow — remained clogged by chaos for a fifth day as passengers waited in lines that streamed out the doors to the sidewalks as painstaking new safety rituals — in many cases involving body searches — proceeded at a snail’s pace.

Budget airline Ryanair, which runs scores of flights out of British airports every day, described the security measures as “heavy-handed” and called for police and army reservists to be summoned to speed up searches at airport security.

Michael O’Leary, Ryanair’s chief executive, told Sky News Television, “If we, the industry, and the government don’t work together to have sensible security … we are going to hand these extremists a terrific PR success.”

If terrorism is to be defeated and not allowed to disrupt normal aviation life, Mr. O’Leary said, “the British government must provide the additional security staffing — either police or army reserve personnel — immediately to prevent London’s main airports from grinding to a halt over the coming days.”

Some help was on the way, with Britain’s Department for Transport announcing it was easing some of the security restrictions, including the ban on carrying luggage aboard departing planes.

Effective today, it said, each passenger will be allowed to carry on a single bag, but only if it measures no more than about 17 by 13 by 6 inches.

Electronic equipment such as laptop computers, mobile phones and IPods will be allowed on board, although each will have to be screened — which still takes time. Still banned are all liquids, except for prescribed medicine and baby milk; the latter will be allowed only after an accompanying adult has tasted it.

The prohibition against mobile phones was still in effect Sunday, when a British Airways flight from London to New York turned back after a ringing cell phone was discovered on board. The pilot of flight BA179 decided to return to London when none of the passengers would admit to owning the offending instrument.

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