Third airline grounds flight after US warning of al-Qa'ida strike

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The Independent Online

A third airline grounded a flight to the United States from Europe for security reasons yesterday in the latest alert over potential al-Qa'ida attacks involving transatlantic flights.

Six flights from Britain and France have now been cancelled since US intelligence warned on Friday of a "specific and credible" information that an international airliner could be seized by terrorists for an attack similar to the 11 September atrocities.

The latest flight to be stopped was Continental Airlines 12.15pm flight yesterday from Glasgow to Los Angeles via Newark, New Jersey.

An airline spokesman said it had been unable to obtain the necessary security clearance from US authorities. The company was trying to place all 150 passengers on alternative flights.

British Airways grounded flight 223 from London to Washington yesterday and today, and also cancelled yesterday's flight 207 from London to Miami. Air France cancelled two Paris-Washington flights yesterday and today. The return flights were also cancelled.

Over Christmas and New Year, dozens of transatlantic flights were cancelled or delayed after intelligence warnings. British Airways flight 223 was also at the centre of those warnings, once being escorted into Washington by US fighters.

It was unclear last night whether the American government would have allowed the cancelled flights to take off had the airlines agreed to put sky marshals on board. British Airways has made clear its uneasiness about deploying such armed personnel on its aircraft. John Lampl, a BA spokesman in New York, said last night that the airline had never used a sky marshal, although they were available if requested from the Government.

"The philosophy of British Airways is that any problems are better rectified on the ground before they get to 37,000ft," he said. "When we have situations as we do now and in early January, it is much safer for everyone just to cancel."

Reports in the US, quoting Bush administration officials, suggested US authorities had insisted armed sky marshals be placed on the flights, otherwise they would not be allowed into US airspace. The reports said the airlines had cancelled instead. Agreement has yet to be reached with pilots over the deployment. British Airways said the Government had ordered the flights to be grounded.

American officials were said to have been ready to screen the planes for biological and chemical weapons on arrival, although there was no specific intelligence relating to that threat.

The Government has refused to discuss the cancellations. Lord Falconer of Thoroton, the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs said sometimes security information was received "that we have got to act on".

He added: "We have always made clear that we must be vigilant. That will lead to inconvenience from time to time but we think it is the right course."

The British Airline Pilots' Association echoed previous concerns over the strength of the US intelligence reports.

Jim McAuslan, the general secretary, said: "We have to take all these intelligence briefings very seriously but we are asking the British Government to examine the strength and validity of them. The cancellation of flights has nothing to do with BA's lack of sky marshals. Sky marshals will not fly until Balpa has an agreement with the British Government on how they are to be deployed."

Paul Beaver, a defence analyst, said yesterday: "People in Washington are saying this is basically good, straightforward intelligence about flight numbers and destinations.

"Al-Qa'ida adapts and evolves. What they are after now are American, British and European passport-holders. They are after clean-looking people, business people or holiday travellers who appear to be smartly dressed."