U.S. terror alert forces six Air France flights to cancel

Al-Qaida may be planning 9/11-style suicide attacks, intelligence reports say

December 25, 2003|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE NEWS

WASHINGTON - Air France yesterday canceled six flights between Paris and Los Angeles at the request of the French government acting on U.S. intelligence reports that al-Qaida might be planning to hijack aircraft for a Sept. 11-style suicide attack.

Three of the flights - two bound from Paris to Los Angeles and one in the opposite direction - were scheduled for yesterday. Two more Los Angeles-bound flights and one to Paris were to have flown today.

The cancellations followed U.S. intelligence reports that followers of Osama bin Laden have been looking to circumvent security measures at foreign and U.S. airports and hijack airliners for suicide attacks on the United States during the Christmas holidays, according to U.S. officials. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of their information.

The Federal Aviation Administration yesterday restricted planes from flying over downtown Chicago because of Mayor Richard M. Daley's fear that terrorists might hit the large Sears Tower, FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said. The mayor's request, made Monday because of the government's heightened terror alert, was granted after consulting with the Department of Homeland Security, Brown said.

The FAA's notice to the aviation community called the Chicago restrictions "special security instructions" and banned all but emergency law enforcement, firefighting and rescue flights from a patch of downtown stretching from the Lake Michigan shoreline to the Dan Ryan and Eisenhower expressways.

One senior U.S. official with knowledge of the administration's deliberations over air space safety said the White House considered closing all U.S. air space if the French government did not cancel the Air France flights. Yesterday, FAA spokeswoman Brown said there was no plan to close U.S. air space.

The senior U.S. official, who requested anonymity, said that U.S. and French officials began talking about the flights shortly after the United States raised its terrorism alert level Sunday. Of particular concern, said U.S. officials, have been airports in France and Mexico.

An official at the Department of Homeland Security, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that U.S. intelligence officials had hoped to keep the reasons for the cancellations quiet so that al-Qaida operatives planning hijackings might be lured into the open and arrested.

"The bottom line is that we had some operational issues that we were trying to carry out and were hopeful that this [capture of al-Qaida extremists] would take place instead of what has happened in the media," said the official.

The official said the United States had been discussing with other countries besides France the need to step up security in light of the al-Qaida hijacking threat. "We are working with all of our international partners to make sure they are meeting the increased security measures," said the official.

The Air France cancellations came on the fourth day of a high-level Code Orange alert for possible terrorist attacks issued by the Department of Homeland Security.

U.S. officials said intelligence developed by the CIA on an al-Qaida threat to Air France aircraft was passed to the French government by the U.S. Embassy in Paris.

A statement issued yesterday by the office of French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin said the decision to ask Air France to cancel the flights was taken after consultations with the United States.

Natelie Loisseau, a spokeswoman for the French Embassy in Washington, said that there had been several days of consultations between U.S. and French law enforcement officials in Paris and Washington "at the operational level."

French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin telephoned U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell yesterday to inform him of the cancellations, she said.

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