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BRITAIN ON ALERT: Terror threat is not a game; John Reid warns of attack on scale of New York atrocities.

Byline: David Morris

BRITAIN was put on terror alert last night amid fears of anal Qaida attack.

Ministers and senior police officers admitted they had considered closing Heathrow airport but instead decided to use the Army to create a ring of steel around it.

Around 1,700 extra police officers were at Heathrow and other key London sites and security was also beefed up at Manchester airport, including spot checks by armed officers.

Meetings of Cobra, the Cabinet Office's civil contingencies committee, have been called and police warned there could be more operations involving the Army.

The Ministry of Defence refused to confirm if military jets were patrolling the skies over the capital.

At one point yesterday Labour Party chairman Dr John Reid appeared to compare the current threat to the September 11 attacks.

He told reporters: ``This is about a threat of the nature that massacred thousands of people in New York.''

Dr Reid later said his remarks had been ``misinterpreted'', adding: ``I was attempting to make clear this is not some sort of game, it's not some sort of PR exercise.''

The 450 troops drafted in to Heathrow with armoured vehicles were continuing patrols amid fears that terrorists could be on the loose with a shoulder-held missile launcher similar to that used in an attack on an Israeli jet in Kenya last year.

At Prime Minister's questions Tony Blair told MPs: ``Terrorist arrests are happening in virtually every European country and many other countries ... and the result is that we occasionally do have to take measures that we would prefer not to take but are necessary in order to give people the protection and security they need.''

The intelligence about a possible threat to Heathrow was received by police and passed to the Government.

Mr Blunkett said shutting Heathrow was considered but ruled out because it would have handed a victory to the terrorists and been `` catastrophic'' for Britain's trade and economy.

Asked about the nature of the intelligence the Home Secretary said: ``The immediate threats are not verifiable; therefore we are working on finding out more information.''

At Heathrow several units of soldiers with armoured vehicles were again stationed by the model of Concorde at the main entrance while military trucks were positioned outside key buildings.

Stop-checks on vehicles also continued on approach roads in towns and villages around the airport in a bid to eliminate the risk of terrorists firing a missile at any jets landing or taking off.

Asked if military jets were patrolling the overcast skies above London, a Ministry of Defence spokesman said: ``A number of prudent measures are in place to deal with the threat to security.

``I'm not able to go into details of whether there are specific RAF aircraft flying. We do not comment on operational matters.''

Jane's aviation security editor Chris Yates said: ``If military jets are over London I would not be surprised.

``There have been periods before when it's been suggested jets would over-fly London - but this may well be one of the first occasions when it has actually happened.''

Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir John Stevens denied `` absolutely'' that the decision to move troops to Heathrow had been a propaganda exercise designed to whip up war fever.

``We're not in the business of scaring people or doing things without reason.''

The Government and Scotland Yard said the security alert was linked to fears that al Qaida could use the end of the Muslim festival of Eid, which runs until Saturday, as a trigger for an attack on London.

Last November's plane attack in Kenya saw some 270 passengers and crew escape with their lives when two missiles narrowly missed an Israeli jet taking off from Mombasa airport.

A devastating suicide bombing was carried out at the same time on a hotel used by Israeli tourists in Mombasa. Fifteen people were killed.

Opinion - Page 6

CAPTION(S):

Q FLYING THE FLAG: A member of the US Navy stands near an F/A 18 Hornet on the flight deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, a Nimitz class aircraft carrier taking part in Operation Southern Watch; in the Gulf Picture: ADAM BUTLER; Q WINGS OF FEAR: Concorde departs for New York as soldiers look on Picture: TIM OCKENDEN; Q ON ALERT: Police search vehicles near Heathrow; Q LOOK-OUTS: Troops at the airport yesterday
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Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Feb 13, 2003
Words:723
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