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Two Dozen Suspects Arrested in Air Terrorism Plot

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Two dozen people are in custody and the British government says the investigation is still going on. British police say the terrorist plot they foiled aimed to simultaneously blow up as many as ten aircraft headed to the United States. Police say the explosives would have been carried in hand luggage.

News of the arrests and intense new security measures caused delays and cancellations at airports in London and throughout Europe, as well as in this country. We'll hear about the American response to the alleged plot in a few minutes and hear about the scene at a couple of U.S. airports today.

First, NPR's Rob Gifford reports from London.

ROB GIFFORD reporting:

Britain woke up to the news of the arrests this morning, and soon airports full of people heading on vacation were in gridlock, as the police implemented stringent new security measures. Home Secretary John Reid held a news conference to explain what had happened.

Mr. JOHN REID (Home Secretary, Great Britain): As I said this morning the police, acting with the Security Service MI5, have carried out a major counterterrorism operation overnight to disrupt an alleged plot to bring down a number of aircraft through mid-flight explosions. Had this plot been carried out, the loss of life to innocent civilians would have been on an unprecedented scale.

GIFFORD: Reid called the investigation complex and ongoing. He and senior police officers were cautious in their statements so as not to comprise any operations or future legal proceedings. Police sources in London, however, said that as many as ten planes had been targeted, perhaps to be blown up simultaneously, perhaps in three waves as they flew across the Atlantic Ocean to the United States.

Police sources also said they believed the attackers planned to use some kind of liquid chemicals, carried in hand luggage and assembled into a bomb on board the planes. This meant that at airports across Britain, all hand luggage was banned from flights as a precaution.

There was a massive disruption at Heathrow, with incoming and outgoing planes down to a minimum. Several senior police officers held news conferences about the alleged plot. Head of the antiterrorist branch of London's Metropolitan Police Peter Clark said the arrests were the result of months of surveillance.

Mr. PETER CLARK (Metropolitan Police Antiterrorist Branch): I can tell you that during the investigation, an unprecedented level of surveillance has been undertaken. We have been looking at meetings, movements, travel, spending and the aspirations of a large group of people. As is so often the case in these investigations, the alleged plot has global dimensions.

GIFFORD: Inevitably, there has been speculation about who the suspects are. The areas of London and Birmingham where the arrests were made have large multi-racial communities. Other suspects were arrested in the town of High Wickham near London.

But police have been treading very sensitively, giving no background information, bearing in mind often delicate relations with the Muslim community since four young extremists killed themselves and 52 others on the London transport system last July. Deputy Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Paul Stephenson was at pains to stress this was nothing to do with any specific community, or any specific faith.

Commissioner PAUL STEPHENSON (Metropolitan Police): This is not about communities. This is about criminals. This is about murderers. People who want to commit mass murder. This is not about anything to do with any particular community. This is about people who might masquerade within the community behind certain faiths, but this is about people who are desperate, desperate people, who want to do things that no right-minded citizen of this country or any other country would want to tolerate.

GIFFORD: A Homeland Security official in the United States said the U.S. government had been told, but all those arrested were British citizens. Sources in Britain say that at least some of those detained were of Pakistani origin. A foreign office spokeswoman in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, said that some arrests have also been made in Pakistan itself, in coordination with the arrests in Britain.

Rob Gifford, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Rob Gifford
Rob Gifford is the NPR foreign correspondent based in Shanghai.