Tough baggage rules may be extended to cover rest of Europe

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The Independent Online

New baggage restrictions on travellers leaving Britain could be extended across Europe and biometric information about air passengers shared between countries under plans to strengthen the continent's guards against terrorist attack.

European ministers discussed a six-point plan of action at an emergency meeting in London arranged by John Reid, the Home Secretary, to examine the lessons of the alleged foiled bombings of transatlantic flight.

Mr Reid warned that the entire European Union was affected by the heightened threat from terrorists "virtually unconstrained in their capacity and ability to do immense harm, death and destruction".

He emphasised the importance of adopting measures across Europe so that "we don't have a position where terrorists feel if it is difficult to get through security checks in London, they might be able to go to Paris or Frankfurt or Berlin".

The meeting of interior ministers, which included Nicolas Sarkozy from France, Wolfgang Schäuble from Germany and Franco Frattini, the vice-president of the European Commission, backed the introduction of "advanced passenger information", under which details of travellers are sent ahead to their destination, throughout the EU. A similar system is used on flights to the US, Canada and Australia.

The Commission wants that eventually to include details of travellers' biometric identifiers, such as their fingerprints or iris scans - the sort of information that will be included in the identity cards the Government wants to begin introducing in three years' time.

The Commission stressed that it had no plans to introduce "passenger profiling", the controversial technique under which people can be checked because of their ethnic background. However, the move is still bound to arouse fears among Muslims that they will be singled out for hostile treatment.

The European ministers committed themselves to making the internet a "hostile environment" for terrorists by shutting down websites that were used to spread messages of hate, glorify murder and give practical advice on making bombs.

A research programme into explosives - particularly those in liquid form - will be set up and greater efforts made to keep track of the sale of detonators.

Specialist "hit squads" of terror experts will travel across the EU to advise governments about security alerts; the ministers also committed themselves to doing more to share intelligence information.

The meeting agreed that urgent work was needed to prevent young Muslims turning to terrorism after becoming radicalised and discussed plans to co-ordinate the training of imams across the EU to ensure that they understand the societies in which they live. The ministers were briefed on the alleged airline bomb plot by Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, MI5 director general, and the head of special operations at Scotland Yard, assistant commissioner Andy Hayman.

Mr Reid said that there would be a formal meeting of EU intelligence agencies to exchange information and consider the current terrorist threat later this month.

"We must not and will not allow terrorists to undermine the common European values that bind our societies together and make us strong," Mr Reid said. "But as we face the threat of mass murder we have to accept that the rights of the individual that we enjoy must, and will be, balanced with the collective right of security and the protection of life and limb that our citizens demand. That is not always an easy balance but it's one that we are committed to maintaining."

The six-point security plan

* British-style security checks on passengers' baggage are likely be extended across the European Union.

* Detailed information about passengers will be shared between countries - which will eventually extend to biometric details.

* Websites that spread hate messages or give bomb-making tips will be shut down.

* Research will be conducted into liquid explosives and greater efforts will be made to track down detonator sales.

* Anti-terror "hit squads" will be set up.

* Urgent work will be ordered into preventing radicalisation within the Muslim community, including the better training of imams.