BA suspends Saudi flights as terror plot is uncovered

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The Independent Online

A terrorist plot to attack British airliners at the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh has been uncovered.

British Airways yesterday suspended all flights to the Middle Eastern kingdom after warnings from the Saudi security services of a "serious threat" to UK aircraft.

Seven men arrested by Saudi officials on Tuesday on suspicion of being terrorists had been plotting to attack aircraft at Riyadh airport, according to a United States official in Washington.

Saudi authorities discovered material indicating the suspects had put King Khalid International Airport under surveillance ready for a possible attack.

Details of the plot were passed to the Department for Transport by MI5, who have warned BA, the only UK airline to fly to Saudi Arabia.

No other European airliners have suspended their flights to Saudi Arabia. A DfT spokesman said yesterday: "There is credible intelligence of a serious threat to UK aviation interests in Saudi Arabia."

This announcement comes after an increasingly violent crackdown on Islamic militants based in Saudi Arabia. More than 140 people have been arrested on terrorism charges, when 35 people were killed in Riyadh in suicide attacks aimed at Westerners.

Fifteen of the 19 hijackers involved in September 11 were Saudis. The authorities last month said police broke up an al-Qa'ida operation, arresting 16 suspects while confiscating bomb-making equipment, rocket-propelled grenades and other supplies.

About 180 passengers had been due to fly to Riyadh on BA 263 at 1.50pm yesterday only to learn that the flight had been cancelled, as was the 7.50pm flight from Heathrow to the Red Sea port of Jeddah. BA, Europe's biggest carrier, said there were "heightened security concerns in the region".

Geoff Want, the airline's safety and security director, added: "As a matter of precaution we have decided to suspend all flights to Saudi Arabia."

There are about 30,000 Britons living and working in Saudi Arabia at any one time.

The Foreign Office said: "We shall be drawing the British Airways announcement to the attention of the British community in Saudi Arabia."

British nationals are currently being advised not to travel to Saudi Arabia unless it is essential.

The Foreign Office advice states: "Co-ordinated bomb attacks in Riyadh on May 12 killed more than 30 people, including two British nationals, and injured nearly 100. Further ... attacks against Western interests in Saudi Arabia remain likely.

News of the terror plot come after fresh warnings that al-Qa'ida terrorists believe that aircraft are still a "soft target" for attack.

Last month the CIA warned the aviation industry that al-Qa'ida suicide-hijackers could be plotting to seize airliners using items such as cameras that have been turned into weapons or bombs.

The suspension of flights yesterday comes after the disruption of BA services to Kenya earlier this year - also over terrorism fears.

BA had to cease flights to Nairobi on 15 May after the Government ordered a ban. This was due to a specific threat against UK airlines in the region. BA recommenced services to Nairobi on 4 July. UK flights to and from the Kenyan coastal town of Mombasa have not yet resumed.