Terror alarm stops flights but turns out to be false

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The Independent Online

A false alarm triggered by US security services forced the cancellation of all Air France flights between Paris and Los Angeles over the past two days.

The French Prime Minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, cancelled two flights on Christmas Eve and one yesterday after calling an emergency meeting of foreign, interior and transport ministers.

American security services had told the French authorities on Christmas Eve that several apparently suspicious passengers were booked on the flights.

The US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, discussed the possible terrorist threat on the telephone with the French Foreign Minister, Dominique de Villepin. M. Raffarin ordered the cancellation of the flights - one two hours before it was due to leave, when passengers were in the departure lounge. The return flights were also abandoned.

The US has been on orange level alert, the second highest, all week. Translatlantic flights from France are sensitive after the arrest of the "shoe-bomber" Richard Reid on a Paris-Miami flight on 22 December 2001. It was initially reported that the US intelligence service had seen the names of one or more suspected al-Qa'ida members on the transatlantic flights.

But French intelligence sources told newspapers yesterday that the American fears were based several passengers having Arab-sounding names. There was no specific tip-off that passengers could belong to an extremist network. No arrests were made, and seven men - one French, one American and five Algerians - were released after brief questioning.

All 450 passengers on the flights were checked by the French police and no terrorist connections were established. "The people with Arab-sounding names turned out to be, for example, a diplomat and a sports player. There were no terrorists," one police source told the newspaper Le Parisien.

The people held were chosen because their names were on a list provided by the US authorities, the ministry spokesman said. There was not enough evidence of a possible terrorist attack and a formal investigation had not been launched.

The US government asked for the flights to be cancelled, fearing there might be bombs or hijackers on board, French officials said. Washington warned late last week that its intelligence services believed the risk of a spectacular terrorist attack on the US was greater than at any time since the attacks on Washington and New York on 11 September 2001.