US-bound parcels 'could have exploded:' Dubai, London

30th October 2010, Comments 0 comments

Two suspected Al-Qaeda parcels from Yemen intercepted before reaching synagogues in Chicago contained powerful explosives that could have exploded, authorities in Dubai and London said on Saturday.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said one of the devices, found at an airport in central England, was designed to explode on board the airplane transporting it.

With fingers pointing at Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Yemeni security forces surrounded a house in which a woman believed to have sent the parcels was hiding, Yemen's president said.

The drama began on Friday when the parcels were discovered after a tip-off from Saudi Arabia, sparking an international security alert that US President Barack Obama described as a "credible terrorist threat."

The packages were found on cargo planes in Dubai and at Britain's East Midlands airport.

"We believe that the device was designed to go off on the airplane," Cameron told BBC television from Chequers, his country residence near London.

"We cannot be sure about the timing, about when that was meant to take place. There is no early evidence it was designed to take place over British soil but of course we cannot rule that out."

Earlier, Home Secretary Theresa May had confirmed that the device "was viable and could have exploded."

Britain was not thought to have been a target, and May said it was not believed that "the perpetrators of the attack would have known the location of the device when it was planned to explode."

Speaking of the second device, Dubai police chief General Dahi Khalfan said "this was a parcel bomb and a terrorist act could have occurred," adding the device could have "exploded" on board the airplane had it not been intercepted.

The parcel held in Dubai was flown in from Sanaa via Doha, an Emirati aviation official said, while police in Britain said the package intercepted there came via Cologne, Germany.

In the Yemeni capital Sanaa, President Ali Abdullah Saleh said "security forces are surrounding a house in Sanaa where a woman suspected of having sent the two parcels is staying."

Earlier, Yemeni authorities had announced the seizure of 26 other parcels on Saturday and said they were being examined.

An official added that employees of an unnamed air transport company and of the Sanaa airport cargo-handling division had been detained for questioning on Saturday.

The White House said top counter-terrorism advisor John Brennan had spoken to Saleh on Saturday morning and emphasised that the United States stands ready to assist Yemen in its "fight against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula."

Brennan "underscored the importance of close counterterrorism cooperation, including the need to work together on the ongoing investigation into the events over the past few days," the White House said.

Saleh, meanwhile, vowed that "Yemen is determined to fight terror but will not allow anyone to intervene in its affairs."

In Dubai, police said investigation of the "package (intercepted there) that came from Yemen through the US delivery company FedEx has shown that (one contained) a computer printer whose ink contained explosive material."

The device contained a highly explosive combination of PETN and lead azide and "was prepared in a professional manner and equipped with an electrical circuit linked to a mobile telephone (SIM) card concealed in the printer.

"The manner in which this device was prepared bears the hallmarks of those used by terrorist organisations like Al-Qaeda," the statement said.

PETN (Pentaerythritol tetranitrate) is the same substance used by would-be 2009 Christmas Day bomber Farouk Abdulmutallab and 2001 attempted shoe-bomber Richard Reid.

Top US officials said the threat level in the United States was unchanged, but the Department of Homeland Security announced it had boosted security measures.

Britain's May said there were no plans to change a threat level already at its second-highest point there, suggesting an attack is highly likely.

Direct cargo and passenger flights from Yemen to Britain were suspended in January after the abortive Christmas Day bombing. On Saturday, France also suspended air freight from Yemen, civil aviation chiefs said.

Obama and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano both pointed the finger at Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

"We know that Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the terrorist group based in Yemen, continues to plan attacks against our homeland, our citizens, and our friends and allies," Obama said.

And Napolitano told CNN: "We know that the perpetrators of this -- and it has the hallmarks of Al-Qaeda, the AQAP -- they are constantly trying things to test our system."

The cargo scare offered a new twist as Western authorities have usually focused on dangers posed to passenger planes following the September 11, 2001 attacks, when Al-Qaeda hijacked planes and struck targets in New York and Washington.

Yemen, the ancestral homeland of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, has become a haven for violent extremists over the past decade.

It is the headquarters of AQAP and the hiding place for US-born radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who has been linked to high-profile terror plots in the United States.

© 2010 AFP

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