EU official says 'US to blame' for terror attacks

Terror in America: European Response
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The Independent Online

A senior EU official provoked controversy yesterday when he was quoted as blaming American attitudes for inciting last week's terrorist attacks.

"There is no doubt that boastful behaviour is one of the reasons for the frustration and hate against the US that have created the fertile soil for the terror attacks," Politiken, a Danish paper quoted Poul Neilson, the European Commissioner for Development, as saying.

The commissioner's spokes-man denied the quotes. He said Mr Neilson was talking about globalisation and "would not dream of making a direct link between these cruel attacks and the role of the US in the world."

Mr Neilson's comments came as the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, helped to set up the first EU-wide anti-terrorist unit yesterday as part of a package of measures to target terror groups operating in Europe. The new unit, based at Europol offices in The Hague, will be required to produce an assessment of the terrorist threat to EU states and the likely nature and location of attacks.

For the first time, Europol officers have been told to establish links "as quickly as possible" with US intelligence and law-enforcement agencies to exchange information on potential terrorist threats.

The new unit was part of a package of 37 proposals to fight terrorism that received broad approval at a meeting of Europe's interior ministers in Brussels yesterday. The UK also joined Belgium, France and Spain in proposing joint anti-terrorist investigation teams for the first time. Comprised of magistrates and police officers, the teams will co-ordinate linked criminal investigations in EU states.

When Tony Blair joins other European heads of government tonight he will endorse the EU-wide measures as evidence of a determination to defeat terrorists. The leaders will be met by unprecedented security. The EU quarter of Brussels was being sealed off from midnight last night and underground stations near the summit venue will shut from midday today – even though the brief meeting does not take place until the evening.

Some of the plans agreed yesterday had been in the pipeline already, including key provisions for a European search-and-arrest warrant. This means that suspects wanted for terrorism in one EU state will be pursued by police in all 15 countries and handed over to the country where they are wanted. This applies to serious crimes that carry a penalty of at least one year in prison. While such pan-European justice proposals would have been politically contentious for countries such as Britain just a few months ago, the Government is now a firm supporter.

Other measures include a common definition of terrorism throughout the EU to end differences among the legal regimes of the 15 member states, only six of which have specific anti-terrorism statutes. Guidelines for sentencing convicted terrorists, including a minimum penalty of 20 years for murder, would also be added.

Ministers did not sign up to the detail of the package, which must now be negotiated, but set themselves a tight deadline of 6 December for that agreement. All gave strong support to the need for closer co-operation.

Antoine Duquesne, the interior minister of Belgium which holds the EU presidency, said: "We will all be asking our services to think the unthinkable because the unthinkable has already happened. We are talking about the ultimate threat. Perhaps we all have to acknowledge that, in the past, our services have competed rather than co-operated."

He added that, if evidence of a specific terrorist threat emerged, members of the Schengen free-travel area would re-introduce border controls temporarily.

Otto Schily, Germany's interior minister, said that international terrorism should be fought "with all the means democracies have," and called on colleagues to move quickly.

The speed with which the authorities have moved has alarmed some civil liberties groups. The human rights organisation Amnesty International has demanded explicit assurances that any measures which are taken to tighten up security will not undermine civil liberties and the right of refugees to protection.

Proposals to allow counter-terrorism officers greater access to information stored by the Schengen Information System, an electronic bank of personal data, are likely to alarm some groups. They fear that anti-globalisation protesters may be targeted.

Mr Blunkett said "the people we are dealing with are sophisticated, well-organised and entirely ruthless". However, he insisted that none of the measures adopted should breach the United Nations Convention of Human Rights, which has been written into British law.

"There is a danger," said Mr Blunkett, "and all of us over the last week-and-a-half have been cautious not simply to play to the gallery. The balance of protecting and maintaining our freedom and democracy is a very delicate one."

Efforts to crack down on money-laundering will be discussed today and tomorrow when EU finance ministers meet with central bank governors at Liège, in Belgium.