By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 14, 2006 11:06 AM
LONDON, Aug. 14 -- British authorities today lowered their assessment of the terrorist threat in Britain from "critical" to "severe," clearing the way for airports to lessen the stringent security measures that have caused hundreds of cancelled flights and lengthy delays for travelers.
At London's Heathrow airport, Europe's busiest hub, airport officials responded to the reduction by cutting in half the number of passengers they were hand-searching -- from 100 percent to 50 percent, the British Airports Authority said in a statement.
Despite the reduction in the threat level, British Home Secretary John Reid, the country's highest-ranking law enforcement official, stressed that an attack was still "highly likely" although not "imminent." "The change in threat level does not mean the threat has gone away," Reid said in a statement.
Despite the lowering of the threat level, the clogged airport still had to cancel 68 flights as of noontime in London on Monday to have time to move passengers through the search process.
The heightened security measures went into effect last week after British police arrested two dozen suspects in what they said was a terrorist plot to explode as many as 10 jetliners leaving Britain bound for the United States.
Passengers at Heathrow today were still being asked to bring no hand luggage onto the planes, although they could bring some electronic devices, such as iPods.
Airport officials said that by Tuesday, passengers could bring one carry-on bag, about the size of a computer bag, but it could not contain cosmetics, toiletries, drinks, or liquids.
The alleged terrorist plot involved using liquid explosive to detonate the planes, authorities said. Passengers on flights to the United States were not allowed to have any liquids or gels or food or drink on board. Other passengers would be allowed to have laptops, prescribed medicines, and baby milk and food, as long as it was tasted first by the parents, airport officials said.
The lowering of Britain's threat level came one day after Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff lowered the threat level for commercial flights departing Britain for the United States from red to orange.
The threat-level announcement came after Chertoff appeared on several Sunday morning talk shows warning that enemies of the United States "still want to carry out spectacular plots" and have been developing ways to skirt security. He said, however, that there was no evidence that terrorists were working within the United States as part of the London-based plot.
Staff writer Josh White contributed to this report.