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Britain Disrupts Plan to Bomb U.K.-U.S. Flights

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

British police say they've disrupted a major terrorist plot to blow up passenger flights from Britain to the U.S. They've arrested more than 15 people and raised the national threat to level that is the critical level or red alert. The Deputy Commissioner of London's Metropolitan Police Paul Stevenson, in a news briefing this morning, said that the terrorists aimed to commit mass murder.

Commissioner PAUL STEVENSON (Metropolitan Police, London): We believe that the terrorist's aim was to smuggle explosives onto airplanes in hand luggage and to detonate these in flight.

MONTAGNE: In response to the British announcement the United States has raised its aviation threat level to the highest level for commercial flights from Britain to the United States.

Joining us now to talk about the situation is NPR's Rob Gifford in London. And Rob, tell us what you know at this point about this foiled plot that the British authorities have announced.

ROB GIFFORD reporting:

Well, details are still fairly sketchy Renee. We have just had this news conference from Paul Stevenson of the Metropolitan Police. And what he said was that this plot they have foiled was a plan to blow up aircraft on the way from the U.K. to the U.S.

They have actually arrested a number of people, and the belief is here that there could have been up to as many as ten planes that it was planned to blow up simultaneously over the Atlantic Ocean. They've taken action. They've arrested 21 people, Paul Stevenson said. And the investigation's ongoing. Those people are in custody being questioned.

MONTAGNE: And do you know anything at this point about those arrested? Any details?

GIFFORD: We don't have any details. The police are playing their cards very close to their chest. But interestingly Paul Stevenson in that news conference that we've just heard, he talked - because, of course, the suggestion is that there will be a lot of speculation that these people might come from within the Muslim community. We had the bombs in London last July, four British born Muslims of immigrant parents from Pakistan and from elsewhere.

And had he actually - in his news conference he looked to preempt that. He said, we're not talking about communities - he didn't say where these people are from - but we're not talking about communities, we're talking about murderers. We're not talking anything about some particular faith. We're talking about people who wanted to commit mass murder on an unimaginable scale is how he put it. So he's sort of preempting the debate that's sure to emerge, I think, about the Islamic community in Britain.

MONTAGNE: Now, in heightening alerts at airports there in Britain, carry-on luggage has been banned. Does it say anything about this plot that carry-on luggage was banned, why is that?

GIFFORD: That's right. And there are still flights going out of Britain, some going out of Heathrow and other airports. But they've banned carry-on luggage because the focus of this particular investigation has been some kind of liquid chemical. Police sources here in London have said that some kind of liquid, it's thought that was going to be used. Perhaps two types of liquid inert in separate bottles that could be joined together, when put together could cause some kind of explosion.

And so they're specifically focusing on liquids, but they're not allowing anyone to carry any hand luggage except wallets and passports just in order to be double safe with the threat that they've heard. And their intelligence clearly is telling them that hand luggage was the thing that was going to be used.

MONTAGNE: And how has this affected travelers?

GIFFORD: Oh, huge disruption of course. This is the holiday season. London is the world's busiest international airport. Sixty-five million people go through there every year. There is actually complete chaos at London's Heathrow and all flights, short haul flights, have been stopped within Europe. And all flights into London Heathrow have been stopped except for those that are in the air now. So a huge disruption to travelers.

MONTAGNE: Rob thanks very much.

GIFFORD: Thank you Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Rob Gifford speaking from London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Morning Edition
Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
Rob Gifford
Rob Gifford is the NPR foreign correspondent based in Shanghai.