Monday, August 14, 2006

British airliner turned back over security scare

British airliner turned back over security scare
By Michael Smith

LONDON (Reuters) - A British Airways flight to New York was turned back to London's Heathrow airport on Sunday because of a security scare over a mobile phone that did not belong to any of the passengers, officials said.

The phone was later found to be safe, as the government said the threat to Britain of a terrorist attack had been downgraded to severe from the critical level last week when police said they had foiled a plot to blow up transatlantic airliners.

Despite the downgrading, the Transport Department warned in a statement: "This (still) means that a terrorist attack is still highly likely."

British Airways said the captain of the airliner, which was carrying 217 passengers, had decided to return to London as a precautionary measure.

"A mobile phone was located on board the aircraft which none of the passengers appeared to own," it said in a statement.

Mobile phones were banned from flights departing from British airports under new tough security measures introduced after the disclosure of the alleged plot to smuggle bombs on to aircraft disguised as drinks.

Police said on Thursday they had foiled an attempt by would-be suicide bombers to blow up simultaneously up to 10 airlines flying to the United States. Twenty-four people were arrested.

Home Secretary (interior minister) John Reid said on Sunday another attempted terrorist attack on Britain was highly likely.

"We think we have the main suspects in this particular plot, but there could be others out there, perhaps people we don't know," Reid told BBC television.

"It is highly likely there will be another terrorist attempt. The threat of a terrorist attack in the United Kingdom is still very substantial," he said.

Reid said at least four plots had been thwarted since July last year when four Islamist suicide bombers killed 52 people on London buses and trains.

The new security measures have caused chaos at airports on both sides of the Atlantic.

British Airways canceled 30 percent of its flights from Heathrow on Sunday in a growing dispute with airport authorities over how to apply the tougher security.

Airlines said cancellations and disruptions showed no sign of easing.