Sudanese man held at Heathrow after US checks fail to spot bullets

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The Independent Online

A Sudanese man armed with bullets was being questioned by anti-terrorist police last night after being arrested at Heathrow airport hours after walking undetected through American security in Washington DC.

The man, aged 45, was able to board a Virgin Atlantic flight at Washington's Dulles airport with four or five bullets, despite the introduction of extra security checks in the United States. The security lapse is extremely embarrassing for the American authorities because they have recently questioned the level of protection being offered by foreign airlines and forced several flights to have additional checks. The route between London and Washington has also been publicly identified as a potential target for terrorists in recent weeks.

Guards discovered the bullets on the Sudanese man as he went through a metal detector at about 7.40am at Heathrow. The passenger was in the airport's terminal 3 to transfer to a flight to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. He was arrested by the police and was being questioned last night.

No weapons or illegal items were found in his luggage. He was initially arrested under firearms laws but was later taken to a central London police station and held under the Terrorism Act 2000.

An aviation expert last night described the American authorities as having a flawed security system and practising a technique of "smoke and mirrors" in which they have exaggerated their own capabilities.

The Sudanese man caught a 12.15am flight from Washington. Before being allowed on board he would have gone through a metal detector and his luggage would have been X-rayed. Anyone setting off the detector has their belongings checked and often their shoes placed in a machine that tests for explosives.

But it was not until the passenger had reached Heathrow that his bullets were discovered. Forensic specialists are currently analysing the bullets to establish whether they are live rounds or fakes. A police source said, according to initial inquiries, that the suspect was not a known criminal or terrorist, although further checks are taking place. Detectives are concerned about some of the details given by the suspect and he was later arrested under anti-terrorism laws for further questioning. Chris Yates, an aviation security expert for the publishers Jane's, said: "There is an impression with all the rhetoric that the US now has the best security in the world and it can stop anything any time. But it didn't stop a bunch of ammunition getting on a plane from Washington to London, did it?

"We are still, in this country, way ahead of the US in terms of security and I think a lot of what has been done in the US amounts to smoke and mirrors. The US has made a rush to judgement with its security, it hasn't looked at best practice elsewhere and adopted that, it decided on a model based on what some in this industry believe is a flawed approach."

Yesterday's incident follows American insistence that armed sky marshals travel on some US-bound planes due to increased concerns of a terrorist attack. The American demand, opposed by some airlines and by the British airline pilots' union Balpa, was followed by repeated disruption to British Airways' London to Washington flight BA223. The mid-afternoon departure was cancelled three times and was delayed on other occasions.

A spokesman for Balpa said: "As we keep saying, it's security on the ground that matters the most. Obviously, there will be a lot of questions asked in America as to how he got on the plane undetected."

A spokeswoman for Virgin Atlantic said of the incident: "The items seized did not pose a threat to our aircraft."