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WAR ON TERROR: ALERT OVER BUSH: I do not have anthrax; BUSH BIDS TO CALM FEARS OF OUTBREAK AS WHITE HOUSE HIT.

Byline: ANDY LINES US Editor in Washington

PRESIDENT George W Bush yesterday insisted: "I do not have anthrax" after it emerged contaminated mail had been sent to the White House.

Traces of the lethal bacteria were discovered on machinery at a remote military base which screens mail addressed to the White House.

Experts were examining whether the spores were inside a letter addressed to the President.

The White House and the West Wing were swept to ensure the buildings were not contaminated. Tests have proved negative so far.

The President refused to say whether he had been tested but added: "I'm confident when I come to work tomorrow that I'll be safe."

For the first time Bush said he feared the anthrax attacks were down to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network. He said: "We have no hard evidence but it wouldn't surprise me that they're involved in it."

His spokesman Ari Fleischer added: "There is a suspicion that this is connected to international terrorists. Our nation is under attack as a result of these mailings."

The sorting base was closed yesterday for decontamination while its workers and White House mail room staff were being screened.

All mail sent to the base for checking comes from the Brentwood sorting office where two workers have died of anthrax and two others are fighting for their lives.

A furious union boss yesterday claimed the men would not have died if they had had the "special treatment" given to Senators, Congressmen and their staff in the anthrax scare at Capitol Hill.

Vince Sombrotto, head of the National Association of Letter Carriers, said: "We are outraged that our members weren't tested.

"I hope that people who work on Capitol Hill would not get special treatment over the men and women who work for the postal service."

Last week workers on Capitol Hill were immediately tested and given antibiotics after a letter containing anthrax was delivered to Senate Leader Tom Daschle. Their offices were sealed and searched for spores.

But five miles away at Brentwood where the letter was handled, staff were ordered to keep working without gloves or masks, received no tests and were given no antibiotics.

Joe Curseen, 47, of Clinton, Maryland, and Tom Morris, 55, of Suitland, Maryland, died and 11 of their colleagues are believed to have contracted anthrax.

Experts have now found 14 areas of the premises are contaminated.

More than 10,000 post office staff from all 36 centres in the Washington area have been tested for the anthrax.

The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention said Brentwood was not closed as they did not think anthrax could escape from sealed letters. They are considering giving gloves and masks to all staff. Postmaster General John Potter said: "Like other symbols of American freedom and power, the mail and our employees have become a target of terrorists.

"We must take extraordinary steps to protect them both."

But post staff were scathing. Clerk Melvin Thweatt, 37, said: "They closed the Capitol down and kept our place open. Our lives are important too. It's very scary."

Patricia Johnson, president of the local branch of the Postal Workers' Union, said: "We are the last in any government agency that they care about."

Washington health director Ivan Walks said there were now four confirmed cases of pulmonary anthrax from Brentwood - the two dead and two "critically ill" - and four with "suspicious" symptoms.

Another 12 had symptoms which he called "low suspicion". Mr Walks said the authorities were so worried that they were now giving antibiotics before they even tested people.

A middle-aged woman postal worker in New Jersey is fighting for her life after contracting pulmonary anthrax. Another worker at the same Trenton sorting office was found to have cutaneous anthrax last week and a third is believed to have the same form of the disease.

The Royal Mail in Scotland was last night helping with a US investigation into a letter postmarked in Glasgow which was sent to the New York Times with white powder inside. The mail room worker who opened it and a colleague were being tested for exposure to anthrax.

CAPTION(S):

DEFIANT: President Bush insists he's safe despite new anthrax scare
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Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Oct 24, 2001
Words:701
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