Washington, Dec. 29 (Reuters): One week after raising its terror alert level, the US government today ordered foreign airlines to place armed marshals on selected flights to and from the US in a bid to boost security and thwart attacks.
The department of homeland security, which on December 21 raised its terror alert to the second highest level, said it remained concerned about al Qaida’s desire to conduct attacks against commercial airlines within the US.
The department today issued the aviation emergency orders to further boost security on passenger and cargo aircraft flying to, from and over the US.
When intelligence information shows signs of a potential threat on a flight the department will direct foreign carriers to place armed government law enforcement officers on particular passenger and cargo flights, or take other security steps.
“We are asking international air carriers to take this protective action as part of our ongoing effort to make air travel safe for Americans and visitors alike,” homeland security secretary Tom Ridge said in a statement.
“I have said that we will take specific steps to increase security whenever necessary, and with this action we are doing just that,” Ridge said. The new measures go into effect immediately.
Armed air marshals disguised as passengers are already deployed on thousands of US airline flights each week in an effort to prevent another day like September 11, 2001 when hijackers took control of four US aircraft and flew them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field.
Britain said yesterday armed sky marshals will be placed on some British passenger planes after warnings from the US about a heightened terror threat.
Last week six Air France flights between Paris and Los Angeles were canceled on security concerns expressed by US intelligence. French authorities detained 13 people who had been booked on the flights but released them after finding no links to radical groups.
The homeland security statement said the US would also continue to conduct checks on passengers and crew of flights entering and leaving US airspace.
The move drew a mixed reaction from international carriers and airline bodies.
British Airways, Europe’s largest airline, which in the past has said it had concerns about the presence of firearms on planes, was distinctly lukewarm about the idea. “This is a matter for the department for transport,” said a spokeswoman for the carrier.
Other international carriers appeared more amenable to the idea. “We are open to having sky marshals in our planes,” said Frank Houben, a spokesman for Dutch airline KLM . Germany has had sky marshals in operation since shortly after the September 11 attacks. Berlin said air marshals would fly on all transatlantic flights and other unspecified routes out of the country, but declined to give more details.
US forces today said they had killed three suspected members of a group linked to the al Qaida in a gunbattle in Iraq, and US allies Thailand and Bulgaria vowed their soldiers would stay on despite coming under deadly attack.
Meanwhile, Japan added its name today to a list of countries joining a US initiative to cut Iraq’s huge debts, saying it was prepared to write off most of what it was owed if others did the same.