Sighting of prime suspect in US embassy bombings sparks ban on British flights

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The hunt is intensifying for an alleged senior al-Qa'ida operative accused of co-ordinating the bombing of two US embassies in east Africa and the attack on an Israeli-owned hotel in Mombasa, after he was reportedly sighted in Somalia.

The hunt is intensifying for an alleged senior al-Qa'ida operative accused of co-ordinating the bombing of two US embassies in east Africa and the attack on an Israeli-owned hotel in Mombasa, after he was reportedly sighted in Somalia.

His sighting ­ and the fear that he may be planning further attacks ­ appears to have sparked the security alerts that led British Airways to suspend its flights to Kenya.

Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, a Comoros islander also known as Harun, is accused of being the co-ordinator of the 1998 embassy bombings which killed 224 people in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, and Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. He is also believed to have been behind the 2002 Mombasa attacks, in which 16 people died.

This week the Kenyan National Security Minister, Chris Murungaru, said that Mohammed, 29, had been spotted in the Somalian capital, Mogadishu, and that he might already be operating inside Kenya. He circulated a photograph of Mohammed and said he had ordered security forces to be placed on high alert. There is a $25m (£15.4m) reward for his capture.

The ministry's spokesman, Douglas Kaunda, said: "Given that this fellow has been sighted in Mogadishu and the information gathered is that he has been coming in and going out [of Kenya], we have to be on high alert. The minister said there is already heightened surveillance of major installations, particularly of Western interests."

The bounty was put on Mohammed's head by the FBI after it indicted him for masterminding the synchronised lorry bombings of the embassies. A computer expert said to have 20 aliases who speaks French, Swahili, Arabic and English, Mohammed is believed to have left Kenya while the embassies were still burning in 1998.

He is said to have spent three months in Kenya last year planning the suicide bombing and attempted missile attack on an Israeli charter jet last November. He may have arrived in Kenya over the Somali border. Somalia is the base for al-Itihad al-Islamiya, an affiliate of al-Qa'ida, alleged to have trained the US embassy bombers.

In March, the Kenyan authorities arrested another suspected al-Qa'ida member inside Somalia. Suleiman Abdalla, who is also accused of being involved in both terrorist attacks in Kenya, has since been extradited to the United States.

While Somalia has long been seen as a potential bolthole for fugitives, the possible sighting of Mohammed will be of great concern to the FBI, which has placed him on its most-wanted list. In the aftermath of the 1998 bombing, in which declassified versions of confidential FBI reports suggest he played a central role, he is believed to have fled to the Comoros.

"Initial planning of the attacks against the US embassy at Nairobi seems to have begun in spring 1998, with the movement of key personnel into east Africa," says one such FBI report. "In May 1998, Harun rented an estate home in an upscale residential neighbourhood outside the centre of Nairobi at 43 Runda Estates. The home was isolated by high walls that surrounded the property, making it nearly impossible for any passer-by to observe activity in and around the house.

"Moreover, the gated driveway was large enough to accommodate trucks, as was the garage. It is believed that the bomb used to destroy the US embassy at Nairobi may have been constructed and actually stored at this location."

Despite the seizure of Abdalla, officials will be aware that catching the multi-lingual Mohammed is no easy task. "He likes to wear baseball caps and tends to dress casually. He is very good with computers," says the entry on the FBI's list.

The concern about a possible attack has been high enough for the US to urge its citizens to postpone non- essential trips to Kenya. It said any attack could be timed to coincide with the celebration of the Prophet Mohamed's birthday, Maulid Nabi, on Thursday.

After last November's failed attempt to shoot down a plane carrying Israeli tourists from a holiday resort near Mombasa, the US State Department made a specific warning about air travel. "The threat to aircraft by terrorists using shoulder-fired missiles continues in Kenya, including Nairobi," it said. Al- Itihad al-Islamiya was named by the Kenyan authorities as the prime suspect in that attack.

Yesterday's warning of the launch of missiles at flights will continue to strike fear into pilots. The technology to shoot down an airliner just after take-off, using a shoulder-launched surface-to-air missile, has long existed. Flight crews had hoped that security on the perimeter of airports would be sufficient to prevent such an attack. Mombasa proved them wrong.

Like Mombasa, Nairobi airport is ramshackle and hard to secure. The airport is used by far more UK-based aircraft than Mombasa, and British Airways' 747s are likely to be a more appealing target for terrorists. Clearly, reasonable intelligence has reached the Foreign Office to suggest an attack is imminent.