Britons arrive back on last flight from Kenya

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Relieved Britons arrived home from Kenya today after the Government grounded all UK flights to and from the east African state, amid fears that a known terrorist may be planning a missile attack on a British aircraft, days after the Saudi Arabia suicide bombing.

The move was believed to be the first time British authorities had grounded international flights because of the threat of terrorism.

The Department for Transport told British airlines that the danger level had increased to "imminent" after Kenyan authorities disclosed that an alleged terrorist believed to have masterminded the 1998 bombing of the US embassy in Nairobi had returned to the country. The Government fears an attack by Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, an al-Qa'ida suspect thought to be behind the embassy bombing, which killed more than 200.

Mohammed, who is on an FBI most-wanted list with a $25m price on his head, is also believed to have been involved in attacks in Mombasa in November, in which terrorists tried to shoot down an Israeli charter jet with surface-to-air missiles and killed 11 Kenyans and three Israelis with a suicide bomb at a holiday resort.

The British High Commissioner in Nairobi, Edward Clay, said that his staff were working closely with British Airways to help more than 1,000 British holidaymakers in limbo in Kenya.

He acknowledged the decision to halt flights was a "very severe disappointment" to the Kenyans but said that the authorities in Nairobi understood the need for the action.

"There is no daylight between their analysis and ours of the risk," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

Passengers arrived at 4.51am at Heathrow airport today on the last British flight to leave Kenya until further notice.

Most of the passengers were relieved, some felt more philosophical about living with the increased threat of terrorism.

Olive Wood, aged 73, from Caterham in Surrey, had returned from a visit to see her daughter.

She said: "We weren't told anything but I would rather not have known that there were any terrorist threats. There's no point in getting stressed about it. The outside security was not very good, but BA security was excellent.

"I'm really quite surprised because we are just coming home and only now we are hearing about some crisis."

Sue Harrison, 58, from London, works for the British Council and was in Kenya on business.

She said: "There was quite a lot of security at the airport - an enormous amount.

"It's a way of life these days. You have to be philosophical or you wouldn't travel anywhere and you would just be giving in to the situation."

The Foreign Office advised Britons to avoid "non-essential travel to Kenya" and for those in the country to keep a low profile and remain vigilant.

At the same time, the US State Department issued a warning of "terrorist threats in the region aimed at American and Western interests, including civil aviation". The US statement said: "Terrorist actions may include suicide operations, bombings, or kidnappings." It said the Kenyan government might not be able to prevent the attacks. The department added that there was a threat to aircraft from terrorists using shoulder-based missiles and that sea ports may be attacked.

The emergency grounding of planes by the Government follows criticism of the Saudi Arabian authorities for failing to provide sufficient security for Westerners this week despite warnings of terror attacks.

The action was taken on the day that Lebanese troops arrested a group of alleged al-Qa'ida operatives who were accused of plotting to attack the US embassy in Beirut and kidnap members of the Lebanese Cabinet.

Matthew Kabetu, head of Kenya's anti-terrorism unit, said Mohammed, who is originally from the Comoros Islands but has joint Kenyan-Comoran citizenship, could be planning another attack. He is aged between 27 and 29 and was last seen in the Somali capital, Mogadishu.

Chris Murungaru, National Security Minister, said security measures had been extended around foreign diplomatic missions, particularly the British high commission and the American embassy. But he described the British ban on flights as an overreaction, saying: "We have not received information of a specific threat. We have information that there is a general threat of terrorist action within the region, but we have known about this threat for some time."

Any talk of an imminent threat was "pure conjecture".

About 100,000 Britons holiday each year in Kenya. Nick Weekly, managing director of African Safari Club, based in Bromley, south-east London, said his firm had about 360 people on holiday in Kenya this week. "Logistically it will be very difficult to fly them out if that is the Foreign Office advice," he said.

Mr Weekly, whose company sends 50,000 people, including 12,000 British citizens, to the country every year, said an outright ban would have a "devastating" impact on the industry.

The British Airways Nairobi to London flight left as scheduled last night with 228 passengers booked to travel. It was due to touch down at Heathrow at 5.45am today.

The airline was expected to offer British travellers stranded in Kenya help in returning via Europe by booking them on flights with airlines continuing to operate from Kenya. Some may have to take a bus to neighbouring countries, such as Tanzania, to catch a flight home.

A spokesman for the Association of British Travel Agents said tour operators would offer travellers about to leave Britain a switch to a flight at a later time, a transfer to an alternative destination or a refund.

Naheeda Karmali, a Nairobi-based student, on hearing of the cancellation of her flight at Heathrow, rang her mother, who works for Air France. "My mother says that only UK flights will be targeted," she said. "It's very scary."

Sheryl and Greg Fasse, an American couple due to travel on the same flight to return to teach at a missionary school, said British Airways was allowing them to take a flight to South Africa, from where they would fly to Nairobi on South Africa Airlines.

Thomson Holidays, the UK's biggest tour operator, with about 100 people in Kenya, has suspended bookings to the country for 10 days.