Plot to poison food at U.K. base alleged

American officials say Islamic militants possibly planned to use ricin

January 24, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - Islamic extremists arrested in Britain this month may have been plotting to lace the food supply on at least one British military base with the poison ricin, said U.S. government officials. The revelations raised concerns in Britain and the United States about the security of allied forces as preparations continue for a possible war with Iraq.

U.S. officials said they had received intelligence reports showing that British authorities suspect that a group of extremists arrested there in a series of raids may have been attempting to gain access to the food supply on at least one military base in the United Kingdom. British officials found traces of the poison ricin in a London apartment where the first arrests were made in the case.

"It's a very live theory," said one U.S. law enforcement official familiar with the information from the British.

American officials said the reports showed that one of the suspects worked for a food-preparation company and had been in contact with people who worked on at least one British military base. The U.S. officials said they did not know the identity of the suspect. They said they also did not know which British military base or bases may have been targeted by the plotters.

Officials cautioned that the assessment is a working theory among British investigators, and that conclusive evidence has not yet been obtained.

"There are some investigators who believe the ricin was being developed to poison British troops," an American official said. "But we still have found no direct evidence between the ricin discovery and that kind of plot."

A spokesman for the British Home Office declined to comment on the reports.

But the potential threat has clearly heightened concerns in Britain, where Prime Minister Tony Blair recently ordered an increase in the number of troops being deployed to the Middle East in preparation to join the United States in a possible war against Iraq.

Pentagon officials also said they have fears about the potential for terrorists to target the food and water supplies at American bases. They said they have been taking precautions to protect American troops being deployed in the Persian Gulf region and elsewhere overseas.

Few details of the British investigation have been made public, but the possibility that the plotters were planning to poison British troops helps explain why British authorities have been moving so aggressively on the case in recent weeks. On Jan. 5, the British anti-terrorist police found traces of the deadly toxin ricin in a North London apartment. Six men were arrested on terrorism-related charges. Some of the men were described as Algerians, but none has been identified publicly.

Ricin is derived from the castor bean, the same plant used to make laxatives and castor oil. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, the poison can exist in pellet form, mist or powder and can dissolve in a liquid. The poison can be inhaled, injected or ingested, though studies have shown that ingestion causes the most damage with the least amount of ricin.

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