Blair to demand action against fundamentalists

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Tony Blair said yesterday that he feared many Britons had been killed in the terrorist attacks in America as he called for a huge international effort to combat the "new menace" threatening the world. Mr Blair telephoned seven other Prime Ministers and Presidents to discuss the need for closer co-operation on anti-terrorist measures. In a 20-minute conver- sation with President George Bush, he pledged to stand "shoulder by shoulder" with the United States.

Although the Prime Minister declined to disclose the details, British officials said he was worried that fundamentalist groups were allowed to operate freely in some countries though they were outlawed in others. Mr Blair hopes a common policy will be one of the key lessons to emerge from this week's outrage.

He said Parliament would be recalled from its three-month summer break tomorrow for an emergency debate, because of the "sheer magnitude of the event, and its implications, but also because this was an attack not just on a number of buildings, but on the very notion of democracy".

Yesterday Mr Blair chaired two meetings of the Cabinet's Civil Contingencies Committee, which agreed to continue the ban on passenger aircraft flying over central London. Mr Blair summoned his full Cabinet to an unscheduled meeting this morning.

A sombre Mr Blair told a press conference in Downing Street: "This was an act of terrorism on a scale I don't think anyone had contemplated before and it shows the new menace that threatens our world. And it is important that the international community, as well as responding to this particular atrocity, considers the nature of these groups, how they are financed, how they operate and how we defeat them.

"People of all faiths and all democratic political persuasions have a common cause: to identify this machinery of terror and to dismantle it as swiftly as possible."

He talked of the "carnage" in New York and Washington,and added: "Given the likely death toll, there will be many citizens of other states who will have died. I have to say I fear significant numbers will be British."

As British officials acknowledged that the US would "set the pace" in reacting to the attacks, Mr Blair played down suggestions that his strong support for President Bush could make Britain a target for terrorism. He refused to say how Britain might support any retaliation by America, but said Britain's interests were already engaged in a direct way because of likely British casualties.

"This was not an attack on America alone," he said. "This was an attack on the free and democratic world everywhere and this is the responsibility that the free and democratic world have got to shoulder together with America."

Although British intelligence experts suspect the involvement of Islamic terrorists, Mr Blair tried to damp down tensions in Britain by insisting Muslims should not be associated with the attacks. He welcomed a statement by Muslim leaders in this country expressing their shock and horror. "Such acts of wickedness and terrorism are wholly contrary to the proper principles of the Islamic faith," said Mr Blair. It was not "a cause between the Muslim faith and the world but between terrorism and the rest of the world, including the Muslim faith".

Despite his close personal friendship with former President Bill Clinton, Mr Blair was anxious to maintain the "special relationship" with Washington under the Bush administration. The bond was reforged when the two leaders met at the President's Camp David retreat in February.

But some senior Labour MPs fear Mr Blair has given President Bush a "blank cheque" to retaliate, without being able to influence such action. Tam Dalyell, the Labour MP for Linlithgow, said: "When I hear President Bush and others saying we must attack those harbouring terrorists, the collateral consequences are really unimaginable again." Asked whether restraint was likely under President Bush, he replied: "No, is the blunt answer to your question and I think the consequences could be fearful."

Labour MPs believe this week's attack will further undermine the Bush plan for a "son of Star Wars" system, and Mr Blair's support for it. One said: "We will have to ask what use £100bn of technology would be against a few people with knives and valid tickets on domestic airlines."

Some 276 MPs, including 216 Labour members, have already signed a Commons motion expressing "grave doubts" about the National Missile Defence (NMD) system and urging the British Government to do likewise. Yesterday, Labour MPs said those doubts can only have been increased by the terrible events in New York and Washington.

At Camp David, Mr Blair struck a classic compromise deal under which he would give his tacit support for the Star Wars plan in return for President Bush accepting the European Union's plans for a rapid-reaction defence force, which some Republicans fear will undermine Nato.

Even before Tuesday's terrorist attack, there was a growing grassroots rebellion inside the Labour Party against Mr Blair's apparent support for NMD. With eight big trade unions uneasy about the proposal, the issue seems certain to surface at next month's Labour conference in Brighton.

Labour MPs argue that the Prime Minister should use his close links with Washington to oppose Star Wars. Alice Mahon, MP for Halifax, said yesterday: "If Tony Blair denies endorsement, President Bush would have pause for thought. Britain's involvement would not only be costly, it would make this country a prime target in any attack.

"There can be no greater consideration for the British Government than the safety of its people."