Court says police may hold 23 suspects in terror plot

August 17, 2006|By STEPHEN J. HEDGES AND AAMER MADHANI | STEPHEN J. HEDGES AND AAMER MADHANI,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

LONDON -- A British magistrate ruled in the government's favor yesterday and declined to release any of the 23 suspects held in the alleged plot to detonate liquid explosives aboard trans-Atlantic flights bound for the United States.

The magistrate found that under Britain's tough new anti-terrorism law, the government may continue to hold the suspects without filing charges. Twenty-one of the suspects may be held until Aug. 23 without being charged, the court ruled. Two others may be held until Aug. 21.

The men, all British citizens of the Muslim faith, were arrested Aug. 9 as part of a months-long investigation. Since then, one suspect has been released and another arrested, bringing the total held to 24. The court did not consider the detention of the newest detainee, who was arrested Tuesday.

Since the initial arrests, police and British officials have given few details of the alleged plot, other than that "this was a plan by terrorists to cause untold death and destruction and commit mass murder," according to Deputy Metropolitan Police Commissioner Paul Stephenson.

Police have spent nearly a week inside the homes of some of the men, many of whom lived in Walthamstow, a working-class neighborhood in northeast London.

Others lived in the modestly upscale area of High Wycombe, west of the city. Police have spent several days conducting a search of dense woods nearby.

Police have so far executed 46 search warrants on homes, businesses and vehicles, including three Internet cafes. They have removed computers and bottles from suspects' homes. In the week after the arrests, 24 of the searches have been completed and 22 are still under way.

Defense attorneys leaving the hearing, a portion of which was held at London's Paddington Green Police Station, declined to discuss the proceedings, which were closed to the public.

One solicitor said on condition of anonymity that the government has "got to start explaining some of this. They haven't said anything, and they're going to owe people an explanation."

Family and friends of nearly all those arrested have expressed astonishment at the charges.

When the arrests were announced, Stephenson said that a group of Muslim extremists had planned to "smuggle explosives onto airplanes in hand luggage and to detonate these in flight." The explosives, police said, were to have been made up of liquid chemicals that, when mixed, would make a volatile bomb.

The explosives, they said, were to be triggered by electronic devices, such as camera flashes and handheld electronic devices.

Up to 10 flights had been targeted, officials said. Since that initial information, however, British authorities have declined to say anything about the investigation or the case they are building against the suspects.

Under a law enacted after July 7, 2005, when four suicide bombers killed 52 London commuters, police can request that terror suspects be held for 28 days without being charged, a time span that allows for collection of evidence in what are often complicated cases.

There are about 60 suspected terrorists awaiting trial in Britain, according to the London Metropolitan Police. If the bomb plot suspects are charged, they would add significantly to that number.

The hearing occurred on the day that Britain's Home Secretary, John Reid, met with European counterparts to discuss terrorism, which he described at the meeting as "unconstrained in its evil intention."

The officials agreed to fund additional research into the detection of liquid explosives.

Reid, who has become the public face of the government effort to prosecute the alleged terrorist plot -- Prime Minister Tony Blair has been on vacation -- faces growing public scrutiny over the course of the inquiry, which remains largely secret, and its repercussions with the British public.

New luggage restrictions, for instance, led to the cancellation of hundreds of flights in England and the misplacement of about 10,000 bags by British Airways. Airline chiefs have lambasted the government's new, strict travel regimen, which initially stranded thousands of passengers.

Stephen J. Hedges and Aamer Madhani write for the Chicago Tribune.

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