Tip-off leads to anti-terror swoop on ship

New security fears over al-Qa'ida moving bomb equipment to UK
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Anti-terrorist officers today continued a detailed search of a cargo ship, seized in the Channel in response to a tip-off from a foreign intelligence agency that the vessel might be carrying equipment for Osama bin Laden's al-Qa'ida network.

A Royal Navy frigate and a high-speed Customs cutter were used to stop the Nisha as it headed for a sugar refinery on the Thames in east London. But it appeared last night that the Metropolitan Police might have stopped the wrong ship, leading to the likelihood that another vessel containing bomb-making equipment, arms, or other material for terrorism, is still at sea.

Scotland Yard said today they were unsure how long the Nishawas going to be off the Isle of Wight, but that it would be moved to an unspecified location once the search was complete.

Detectives and Customs and Excise experts in search techniques today resumed an inch-by-inch search of the Nisha, which was carrying 26,000 tonnes of raw sugar.

Naval and anti-terrorist officers used four inflatable boats launched from the frigate HMS Sutherland yesterday to boarded the merchant vessel about 30 miles off the Sussex coast at 8am as it approached the mouth of the Thames. The ship was moored later at Sandown Bay, off the Isle of Wight.

News that Mr bin Laden's al-Qa'ida network is probably using cargo ships to transport bomb and terrorism equipment has caused port authorities and Customs to re-examine their security. The vessel's owner admitted that security was a problem for maritime firms and that making on-board checks was extremely difficult.

Yesterday's complex security operation was ordered after information sent to MI5this month by a foreign intelligence agency warned that a cargo vessel had picked up terrorist material linked to Mr Bin Laden's supporters while in the Indian Ocean region.

On its journey, the Nisha stopped twice at Djibouti in the north-east of Africa, which is next to Somalia, a country in which al-Qa'ida is thought to have a strong presence. It picked up its payload from Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean.

The intelligence warning said that the terror vessel contained equipment, probably bomb-making material and guns, but there was no suggestion that it was transporting chemical or nuclear weapons. The Indian crew were taken to the frigate for questioning.

A security source described the operation as more of a "precaution" than a full-scale alert. A search of the vessel will continue today aided by experts from Customs and Excise.

A Scotland Yard statement said: "A full security search of the vessel has been completed and no noxious or dangerous substances have been found aboard the vessel. At this stage it is not possible to say how long officers will remain aboard."

Sudhir Mulji, the chairman of the British branch of the Great Eastern Shipping Company, the Indian company that owns the ship, said the firm was unable to run airline-style security checks, and admitted even the vetting of crew members could be open to abuse.

He said: "With any shipping company you basically have no security of that kind. All you can do is just hope that the right people are doing the right thing. It is not as if they go through what you or I do when we go on an aircraft to discover if we are carrying any devices or anything."

Magnus Ranstorp, the deputy director of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence in St Andrews, Scotland, said Mr bin Laden's terror network would perceive ports as the weak link in British security after the crackdown at airports.

He said: "You have the complete unpredictability of al-Qa'ida both in where they are coming from and how they will try to launch attacks. It is prudent of the UK authorities to intercept the ship because of the vicinity to Somalia and because it's right before Christmas – anything is conceivable, al-Qa'ida has shown that."

Tony Blair would not comment on the individual case, but said: "We remain on top-level vigilance throughout these coming weeks and even if the risk is only a potential risk we will not hesitate to take any action that we think necessary in order to investigate any potential threat."