LONDON (AFP) – Britain has released one suspect and gained permission to hold 23 others for more questioning as the investigation into the alleged plot to blow up US-bound passenger jets mid-flight entered a second week.
The released suspect had been arrested on Tuesday in the Thames Valley area outside London, and is the second to be released since British police and intelligence services carried out pre-dawn raids on the suspects’ homes.
Police were late Wednesday granted more time to question 23 suspects, a spokesman for London’s Metropolitan Police told AFP. Police were allowed to detain 21 of the suspects until August 23, and the other two until August 21.
They were all arrested in raids in London and other British cities and towns a week ago. Under anti-terrorist laws, they can all be held without charge for no more than 28 days, subject to regular court approval.
Few details have been released about the alleged plot, but it appears that the plot involved suicide bombers smuggling liquid explosive disguised as drinks on to US airliners, then detonating them with electronic devices in mid-air.
Meanwhile, British Home Secretary John Reid warned Wednesday that Europe as a whole is facing a “very real” and “persistent” risk of a devastating attack, in a meeting with European Union interior ministers in London to map out a common strategy.
“What’s clear to all of us is that we face a persistent and very real threat across Europe,” said Reid after the talks, at which the European Commission promised to introduce a series of measures to strengthen airport security, boost cross-border intelligence sharing and tighten controls on explosives.
Those taking part in Wednesday’s talks in London included the French and German interior ministers, Nicolas Sarkozy and Wolfgang Schaeuble, as well as Kari Rajamaki from Finland, which holds the rotating EU presidency.
European Commission Vice President Franco Frattini, who was also present, said Brussels would draft new measures to enhance airport security and cross-border cooperation before the Finnish presidency ends in December.
He suggested steps to encourage what he called “a European Islam”, including the training of imams, and the blocking of Internet websites deemed to be inciting terrorism.
Frattini also said the European Commission — the executive arm of the 25-nation EU — would be bringing forward new proposals in the coming days relating to controls on liquid explosives and commercial detonators.
European ministers also released 350,000 euros (450,000 dollars) for urgent research into technology for detecting liquid explosives following Wednesday’s meeting, a Home Office spokeswoman told AFP.
Sarkozy, the French interior minister and likely presidential candidate, meanwhile said there was “a pile of elements that make one think that the Al-Qaeda connection is not far removed from what could have happened.”
Reid and Sarkozy on Wednesday signed a text pledging cooperation between their countries in the fight against terrorist activity in Europe.
The threat of terrorism is “heightened and permanent” said the French text of the agreement, a copy of which was obtained by AFP ahead of publication in French daily Le Figaro.
They agreed their efforts should aim to prevent terror attacks and protect the public, as well as pursue and arrest terrorists, following the talks in London.
In Islamabad, officials said Pakistan was holding a man who is “apparently related” to one of the British suspects, and that a senior Al-Qaeda figure in Afghanistan is thought to have planned the foiled attacks.
Reid refused to confirm or deny if Britain was seeking the extradition of suspects — two British and five Pakistani — from Pakistan, but he expressed his “gratitude” to Islamabad for its role in the investigation.
Security worries escalated later Wednesday on news that a United Airlines flight from London to Washington was diverted to Boston, and its passengers and baggage searched, because of what officials called an “unruly” traveller on board, though the incident did not seem to be related to terrorism.
London’s main Heathrow airport, the busiest international airport in the world, and other facilities were running almost normally again Wednesday, after prolonged chaos and disruption.
However, British Airways cancelled 35 flights at Heathrow and 11 at Gatwick — and it also emerged that 20,000 pieces of baggage have gone astray at Heathrow over the past seven days.