Hoaxers blamed for spate of alarms across Britain

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The Independent Online

Suspected anthrax hoaxers who have posted packages containing harmless white powder are being investigated by anti-terrorist officers.

Suspected anthrax hoaxers who have posted packages containing harmless white powder are being investigated by anti-terrorist officers.

Scotland Yard disclosed yesterday that a number of false alarms involving suspect packages were deliberate. A package addressed to Tony Blair, which caused disruption to Birmingham's postal service on Wednesday, was found to be a hoax.

Scientific examination of the package found its contents of white powder to be harmless but the incident forced 600 workers to be evacuated from the city's main sorting office in Aston shortly after 7pm. Staff were alerted to the problem after white powder was spotted leaking from the package. Fifteen people taken to hospital as a precautionary measure.

Police believe an envelope containing a harmless white powder sent to the London Stock Exchange on Tuesday was also a deliberate hoax. The discovery resulted in part of the exchange being sealed off and 13 people being put through decontamination procedures and issued with antibiotics.

David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, warned on Wednesday that he wanted to increase the maximum penalty for anthrax hoaxers wasting police time from six months' to seven years' imprisonment. He said: "The actions of hoaxers are causing distress and perpetuating fear in communities around the country ... Hoaxes cause considerable upset and disruption as well as wasting the valuable time of police and emergency services.

Britain continued to be hit by a series of anthrax scares yesterday including a passenger ferry that was evacuated after crew members found white powder on board. Dozens of passengers were taken off the P&O ferry SL Aquitaine when it docked at Calais during the early hours. The alarm was raised after a small quantity of white powder was found in a passenger lounge.

A P&O spokeswoman said: "A steward found the substance, which he suspected was baby milk. The ship's captain told French police and the fire brigade about the find and it was decided to take action."

Six newspaper reporters were placed in isolation after a suspect package was delivered to the North West Evening Mail in Barrow, Cumbria, at 9am yesterday. The newspaper's offices have been closed while emergency services investigate.

Firefighters, wearing germ-proof suits, decontaminated the interior of a book club in Swindon, Wiltshire, after workers discovered white powder hidden inside a book.

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