Blair calls meeting of crisis Cabinet as Britain goes on the alert

British Security
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British airports were put on red alert against the threat of terrorist attacks last night and all passenger aircraft were banned from flying over central London.

The Metropolitan Police cancelled leave and drafted in 500 extra officers to operational duties, as the head of the force, Sir John Stevens, prepared to share intelligence with the New York Police Commissioner and the head of the FBI.

Tony Blair said no flights would take off from Britain unless their security could be guaranteed and all private flights would be stopped without specific authorisation.

Speaking after a high-level meeting to discuss Britain's response to the devastating attacks on the Pentagon in Washington and the World Trade Centre in Manhattan, the Prime Minister said flight paths into London had been changed to protect the security of vital buildings.

On receiving news of the attacks, Mr Blair had hurried from Brighton, where he was scheduled to address the TUC conference, to London to convene a meeting of the Cabinet's emergency Cobra committee.

Before departing, he told TUC delegates: "This mass terrorism is the new evil in our world today. It is perpetrated by fanatics who are utterly indifferent to the sanctity of life and we, the democracies of this world, are going to have to come together and fight it together and eradicate this evil completely from our world."

Moments earlier, Bill Morris, the TUC president, had provoked gasps of horror as he broke news of the attacks to delegates.

Mr Blair told the conference: "As Bill has just informed you, there have been the most terrible, shocking events taking place in America within the last hour or so including two hijacked planes being flown deliberately into the World Trade Centre. I am afraid we can only imagine the terror and the carnage there and the many, many innocent people who will have lost their lives.

"I know that you would want to join with me in sending the deepest condolences to President Bush and the American people on behalf of the British people at these terrible events."

Sir John said police were taking "all necessary precautions" to ensure that similar attacks did not happen in this country and particular attention was being paid to Heathrow. The airport said it did not expect to operate any flights to the United States or Canada today. The air exclusion zone over London was a "precaution" to ensure only authorised aircraft could fly in the area, Sir John said.

He added that Londoners were "not cowed by terrorism" and should try to carry on business as usual today.

BAA said that seven airports ­ Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, Southampton, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen ­ were put on red alert once news of the attacks reached them. A spokeswoman said: "We are tightening all areas of security and, where we can take extra steps to increase security, we are doing so. Stansted is not affected very much because it has no flights to the US, but tighter controls have gone into effect at Gatwick and Heathrow. It is important that passengers due to travel contact airlines before leaving home, because airlines will know if timings have been changed."

Heathrow typically has 68 transatlantic departures a day and all planes have been grounded. A spokesman for the airport said: "Heathrow has stepped up its security as a result of today and there will be increased vigilance."

British Airways has suspended all flights to America until further notice: "We will be stepping up security arrangements throughout the world but we have a long-standing policy not to disclose any details of our security procedures," said a company spokesman.

However, Phil Butterworth-Hayes, civil aviation editor of the Jane's publishing group, said no matter what precautions were taken now, yesterday's attacks would have undermined public confidence in airport security.

"Today's events will cast a 20-year shadow over international civil aviation. It will be a bigger shadow than the one cast by the Lockerbie crash and the restrictions on civil aviation will be immense," he said.

After Mr Blair left Brighton, the Conservative Party leader, William Hague, described the events in America as a "monstrous act of war against the civilised world" and said his sympathies were with the families of those killed or injured.

"We have all watched with increasing and incredulous horror this afternoon as these events have unfolded around the United States," he added. "Britain must, and I am sure will, stand shoulder to shoulder with the US and peaceful nations across the world in deploying every possible resource to bringing to justice the people responsible and to make sure that terrorism never prevails."

The announcement of the winner of the Tory party leadership contest, due today, has been postponed.

As the Prime Minister headed to Westminster, live television pictures of Manhattan on fire were spreading panic through the City of London.

The London Stock Exchange was closed and thousands of workers were evacuated from other high- profile buildings such as the 800ft-tall Canary Wharf tower, 42 Bishopsgate [the former NatWest tower] and the Lloyd's building. American banks and British companies in the City sent workers home as a precautionary measure.

Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, and Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, the Chief of the Defence Staff, were summoned to the emergency Cobra committee meeting yesterday afternoon. The Prime Minister arrived for the meeting at 4.55pm with his press secretary, Alastair Campbell.

The Cobra committee is named after the underground room where it meets to address matters of national crisis. Cabinet Office Briefing Room A is at the junction of Downing Street and Whitehall and can be reached by a tunnel from the Prime Minister's residence at No 10. It is a windowless basement room with wooden chairs and grey walls, adjacent to the old Cabinet War Rooms.

From here a group of senior ministers and civil servants ­ backed by the latest communications technology ­ are expected to be able to run the country while chaos breaks out above them.

Cobra was most recently convened during the foot-and- mouth epidemic in the spring and the fuel crisis in September last year. But it is also designed to cope with hijackings and terrorist attacks.

Dr David Carlton, a terrorism expert at the University of Warwick, said Britain was "vulnerable" to terrorist attack. He said: "We have to expect that Britain could be a target because of our very close association with the United States. We are most associated with the assaults on Iraq." He pointed out that London had many famous buildings that would make high-profile targets.