Warning of al-Qaida attack cancels seven foreign flights

Paris and London routes top U.S. cities were also affected in December

February 01, 2004|By Sebastian Rotella and Esther Schrader | Sebastian Rotella and Esther Schrader,LOS ANGELES TIMES

PARIS - French and British authorities canceled seven flights to and from the United States yesterday after U.S. authorities warned French and British counterparts about intelligence reports indicating that al-Qaida might target the flights.

Air France canceled its Paris-to-Washington flight No. 26 for today and tomorrow. British Airways canceled its London-to-Washington flights No. 223 for today and tomorrow and the return flights to London No. 222. The British airline also canceled its London-to-Miami flight No. 207 for today.

The London-Washington Flight 223 was one of several canceled over the Christmas holidays during a terrorism scare that grounded eight flights from Britain to Washington and Paris to Los Angeles.

The Christmas scare caused worldwide alarm but also some grumbling in foreign capitals about the all-out aviation security crackdown by the U.S. government.

"This time we have [a] threat reporting specific to time, date and location of specific flights," said a Bush administration official speaking on condition of anonymity.

This alert is "not based on passenger manifests; it's not like we're looking for a specific person who is booked on that flight," the Bush administration official said. The official added that information about a threat began to emerge late Thursday, came from "a credible source, and it's been corroborated by other ... information."

As during the holiday alert, a lack of publicly disclosed information made evaluating the credibility of the threat difficult.

Yesterday's statements seem quite similar to the official description given in December of the intelligence related to the Paris-Los Angeles flights. At that time, U.S. law enforcement officials said that fear of an imminent Christmas attack involving a Los Angeles-bound jet resulted from a convergence of different kinds of intelligence - including a reference by suspected terrorists to a specific flight.

Investigators grew increasingly worried in December when they found names on passenger manifests for the Air France flight already under scrutiny that resembled names on terrorist watch lists, according to U.S. and French officials. Ultimately, six Air France flights were canceled.

But an exhaustive investigation in France, the United States, Tunisia and other countries cleared all the passengers who came under suspicion. And while European pilots and investigators acknowledged the need for aggressive precautions, some - especially in France - suggested that the United States had overreacted by canceling multiple flights and demanding that a number of countries deploy sky marshals aboard flights.

Even some U.S. officials wondered about the level of alarm generated by the names, reasoning that it was unlikely that known al-Qaida operatives intent on an airborne attack would travel under their real names.

Yesterday, the office of French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin once again took the lead in the decision to ground the flights identified as possible targets by U.S. intelligence agencies, according to U.S. and French officials.

"Based on new information and consultations between the governments, the prudent decision was to cancel the flights," a U.S. official said.

The intelligence was relayed to the French government within 24 hours before the cancellation was announced yesterday, the U.S. official said.

In London, Britain's Department of Transportation said it based its decision on the safety of travelers.

The U.S. government passed on the alert to Britain and France but left the response up to the foreign governments and airlines, U.S. officials said.

"We have received very specific and credible threat information about al-Qaida's desire to target specific flights, and we have passed that information on to our international partners, who have made the decision to cancel the flights," said Brian Roehrkasse, spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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