Antiterror Officials Back Flight Cancellations


U.S. government officials believe some of the passengers boarding one of the three Air France flights from Paris to Los Angeles that were canceled this week might have intended to hijack it and crash-land in Las Vegas or another city along its flight path, the Washington Post says.

Police questioned 13 people who had checked in for two Air France flights that were canceled Christmas Eve because of a terrorism warning from U.S. authorities, but no evidence of wrongdoing was found, the French Interior Ministry said.

U.S. officials are suspicious about some of the passengers who did their seats on the aborted Flight 68 from Paris to Los Angeles. One of those who did not appear for the Christmas Eve flight apparently is a trained pilot.

Despite French statements suggesting American fears about the Air France flights were unfounded, U.S. officials believe they might have averted a terrorist attack by arranging for the flights’ cancellation. Officials said they feared that al Qaeda operatives planned to hijack one of the flights and use the plane as a missile to attack a site on or near its route.

Officials said intelligence indicators suggest that al Qaeda might have set other terrorist operations in motion that do not involve aviation and are not centered in California. As on other occasions when terrorist fears are heightened, U.S. officials said their main concern is that al Qaeda might use a chemical or biological weapon, or a radiological “dirty” bomb. One scenario embraced by a number of U.S. security officials is that al Qaeda operatives are in the final stages of planning an attack in this country, and await direction from superiors to proceed. “Government people hope that by deploying, they’ll shut down whatever might have been in motion,” an official said.

Politicians from one target area differed over the threat’s accuracy. The Las Vegas Review-Journal quoted Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev., a member of the House Intelligence Committee, as saying that “Many of these reports are vague and are broad in their inclusion of Las Vegas.” Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn and federal Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge spoke by phone on Tuesday.

Jerry Bussel, Guinn’s homeland security aide, quoted Ridge as telling the governor: “Kenny, I don’t know anything. If I do, I guarantee you I will call you personally.” Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., said, “I think it was most unfortunate that Tom Ridge used Las Vegas as an example of a glamorous destination where there might be an increased threat of terrorist attack. There is no specific information about Las Vegas.”


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