By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 14, 2006
LONDON, Aug. 13 -- Thousands of travelers in Great Britain slogged through the fourth day of heightened security at airports as more than 210 flights were canceled, some delays dragged on for hours, and one airline executive called on the British government to bring in the army and police to help move passengers and avoid the collapse of the country's main airport.
British Home Secretary John Reid said Sunday that another attempted attack is "highly likely." He said authorities have thwarted four major terrorist plots since the July bombings in London last year. British police are holding 23 suspects -- most of them London-based Muslim men in their twenties -- in connection with an alleged terrorist plot unveiled last week to blow up as many as 10 airliners leaving Britain and bound for the United States.
"We think we have the main suspects in this particular plot. I have to be honest and say, on the basis of what we know, there could be others out there," Reid said in an interview on BBC television. "So the threat of a terrorist attack in the U.K. is still very substantial."
Reid said al-Qaeda had first attempted to attack Britain in 2000, and he suggested that more than 20 terrorist conspiracies are currently being investigated in the country.
Responding to a question about a report in the British press that there were "two dozen" terror cells under investigation, Reid said: "I'm not going to confirm an exact number, but I wouldn't deny that that would indicate the number of major conspiracies that we are trying to look at. There would be more which are not at the center of our considerations, and there may be more that we don't know about at all."
At London's Heathrow Airport on Sunday, security officials hand-searched every passenger, which created four times the normal workload and caused lines of passengers to stretch out of the terminal. Airlines operating from Heathrow canceled about 130 flights, people were prohibited from bringing any hand luggage onto airplanes, and some flights left without passengers who couldn't arrive in time, said British Airports Authority spokesman Duncan Bonfield.
"These are unprecedented circumstances: four times the volume of searches in the busiest international airport in the world," Bonfield said. "There has been a significant disruption, but I think people do understand that their safety and security is paramount.
"As yet we've had no indication whatsoever from the government about how long it's going to go on," he added.
One of the airlines operating in Britain, Ryanair, criticized the government's "heavy-handed" security measures that disrupted the travels of thousands of British passengers. The airline said in a statement that it was in favor of "all sensible and effective security measures" but that they should be limited so that fewer people are searched.
"If the main U.K. airlines are forced to continue to cancel flights because the airports cannot meet these security requirements then the extremists will have succeeded," the company said.
Ryanair's chief executive, Michael O'Leary, said his airline cannot cope with the security measures and asked the British government for security personnel to help with the searches.
"If the British government is serious about defeating terrorism and not allowing the terrorists to disrupt normal, everyday British life, then it must provide the additional security staffing -- either police or army reserve personnel -- immediately to prevent London's main airports from grinding to a halt over the coming days," O'Leary said, according to wire service reports.
Airport officials expected the problems to continue into the week, and British Airways on Sunday was planning to cancel 20 percent of its Monday flights from Heathrow to comply with a British Airports Authority directive.
[Late Sunday, U.S. Homeland Security cut the threat level for U.K-U.S. flights to orange, or high, from red, or severe, the Reuters news agency reported.]