U.K. Officials Say Plane Bombing Plot Foiled

British authorities announced Thursday that they have uncovered a terrorist plot to blow up several airplanes flying from Britain to the United States. News of the planned attacks prompted increased terrorism alert measures at airports across the United States.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From the studios of NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

And I'm Alex Chadwick.

Continuing NPR's coverage of today's top story, British police announce they've stopped a terrorist plot to blow up several trans-Atlantic airplanes more or less simultaneously in flight on their way to the United States, killing all on board.

The police have 21 suspects under arrest, all in Britain. In this country, the terrorism alert is set to the highest level, red.

Here's President Bush speaking this morning.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: ...our fellow citizens are now learning about are a stark reminder that this nation is at war with Islamic fascists who will use any means to destroy those of us who love freedom.

BRAND: Police believe the terrorist passengers were planning to hide liquid explosives in their carry-on bags. U.S. authorities have banned liquids from carry-ons. We'll have more on that in a moment.

CHADWICK: Many flights out of London's Heathrow airport are cancelled, airports in the U.S. snarled as well. We'll be checking in on air travel in Britain and around this country.

We'll begin, though, with NPR's Larry Abramson, who has this update.

LARRY ABRAMSON reporting:

British authorities say they've been investigating this plot for a long time. They said they'd only decided to make these arrests because they believe the planners were ready to go into action.

Paul Stephenson, deputy commissioner of London's Metropolitan Police, said if the attack had succeeded the death toll could have been enormous.

Mr. PAUL STEPHENSON (Deputy Commissioner, London): (Unintelligible) said we are confident that we have disrupted a plan by terrorists to cause untold death and destruction and to commit, quite frankly, mass murder.

ABRAMSON: According to Stephenson and other government officials, the idea was to sneak liquid explosives onto several aircraft bound for U.S. airports and then detonate them in the air.

Officials all said this plot was beyond the planning stages, but they did not provide any evidence showing that those involved had in fact procured explosives and detonators.

U.S. officials took the arrests as a warning. The Department of Homeland Security raised the alert level to red for the first time ever, but only for flights coming to the U.S. from Britain.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said there were no direct threats against aviation in this country, but he said he's taken additional precautionary steps.

Mr. MICHAEL CHERTOFF (Secretary of Homeland Security): We want to make sure that there are no remaining threats out there, and we also want to take steps to prevent any would-be copycats who may be inspired to similar conduct.

Accordingly, we are raising the threat level - or we have raised the threat level - with respect to aviation in general to high, or orange.

ABRAMSON: Travelers at airports around the country are learning that this means they cannot take any liquids or gels on board with them. People are also being warned to anticipate delays as airport screeners pay extra attention to carry-on luggage.

U.S. officials produced no evidence that al-Qaida was directly involved, but they say the attack has all the signs of the terrorist group: highly organized, international in scale, and designed for a big death toll.

Larry Abramson, NPR News. Washington.

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