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Rings of steel encircle Heathrow, Gatwick

London, Feb. 13 (Reuters): Britain’s two main airports were hit by security alerts today amid intelligence-led fears that London and Washington could be targeted by al Qaida.

A Venezuelan man carrying a live hand grenade was arrested at Britain’s Gatwick airport today. The police said the 37-year-old Venezuelan was arrested after his arrival at the airport, Britain’s busiest after Heathrow, from Colombia when a suspicious item was found in his luggage which appeared to be a live gernade.

Flights were suspended out of Gatwick’s north terminal and two arrests were also made close to Heathrow on the outskirts of London.

In Washington, anti-aircraft missiles protected the Pentagon — one of the targets of the September 11 attacks — and F-16 fighter jets were placed on 24-hour alert. In New York, police circled Grand Central Station, stopping and searching vans while extra police patrolled streets.

A spokesman for the British airport authority BAA said the north terminal at Gatwick was closed and all flights suspended after a security alert.

Heathrow was surrounded by a ring of steel — troops and police patrolled the airport in the largest security operation in the history of London’s Metropolitan police. The police arrested two men near Heathrow today, but detectives stressed the arrests were precautionary and did not appear to be significant.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, President George W. Bush’s closest ally in the war on terror, said it was vital “to do absolutely everything we can to root these terrorists out”.

As an extra 1,700 police were drafted in for counter-terrorism operations across London, interior minister David Blunkett told parliament Britain faced a “real and serious threat” from al Qaida.

In a city hardened by 30 years of guerrilla attacks by Irish republican bombers, London police chief John Stevens said: “The level of the threat is extremely high. That is why we have taken the steps we have. This is the largest police operation of its kind.”

In the Gulf, where anti-US sentiments are running high, tight security measures are already in place over a possible US-led war on Iraq.

Some jittery New Yorkers were taking extreme measures.

Proprietors at two Manhattan shops said they had sold several hundred $300 chemical protection suits this week. And in Israel, people were advised by the defence ministry to stockpile food and water against the possibility of Iraqi missile attacks in the event of a war against Iraq.

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