By Alexandra Topping
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, August 19, 2006
LONDON, Aug. 18 -- A British plane carrying 269 passengers and nine crew members made an emergency landing in Italy on Friday because of a bomb scare, officials said.
The Boeing 767, operated by Excel Airways, took off from London's Gatwick Airport on Friday morning and landed in Brindisi, Italy, after a passenger found a handwritten note on an air-sickness bag that read: "There is a bomb on board this flight."
Passengers passed around the note, then handed it to flight attendants. It was finally given to the pilot, who decided to land the aircraft at the nearest airport as a precautionary measure, according to Sue Lester, a spokeswoman for Excel. An Italian F-16 fighter jet escorted the plane to Brindisi, according to reports.
The pilot, speaking over the intercom, alerted passengers to the possibility that there was a bomb on board but said the incident was probably a hoax.
Italian police searched and questioned passengers, and the aircraft was examined. No explosives were found, and no arrests were made. It was unclear how long the note had been on the plane.
Lester said that landing the aircraft was "a prudent measure" and that in the current climate, "it was absolutely the right thing to do."
The charter flight was expected to depart later Friday for its destination, the Red Sea resort of Hurghada, Egypt, the Associated Press reported.
One of the passengers, Mathew Masters, told the BBC that there was "silence, a bit of uneasiness, just a bit of shock" among the passengers. Masters said he and his girlfriend had arrived early at the airport because of heightened security measures. "You think you're going to be safe and then something else happens," he said.
The incident came eight days after police thwarted a suspected plot to blow up as many as 10 passenger planes flying from Britain to the United States. British authorities have detained 23 suspects with permission to hold them until next week before having to charge them, let them go or file for an extension.
Since the arrests, many Britons have said they feel nervous when traveling on public transportation and react quickly if they see an unattended bag.
"There is a climate of paranoia at the moment, but not without reason," Roger McCann, 27, a composer, said outside a pub in London. "People need to wise up."
British air traffic showed signs of returning to normal Friday, with Heathrow Airport in London reporting the cancellation of only two flights, down from the 19 cut Thursday. An airport spokesman said the number of bags waiting to be reunited with owners also had been significantly reduced.
However, restrictions on carry-on luggage and heightened security measures remained in place across the country as police continued their investigations.
Meanwhile, the BBC quoted unnamed officials as saying several videos linked to the alleged plot had been found on at least half a dozen laptop computers belonging to some of the suspects. The computers were allegedly discovered at several addresses linked to some of the suspects.
The BBC had reported Thursday that police found a suitcase containing equipment that could be used to make a bomb in High Wycombe, west of London, where at least four of the suspects were seized.
Scotland Yard would not comment on the report or give further details about its investigation.