Britain holds emergency talks after airport security alert

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The British government's emergency committee met Saturday to discuss the threat posed by a package of explosives found at an English airport, as authorities investigated whether it was a "viable" bomb.

The package was bound for the United States and its discovery, along with another package in Dubai, caused a major international security alert. US President Barack Obama said they represented a "credible terrorist threat".

Officials said the committee known as Cobra, which deals with national emergencies, went on for more than an hour before breaking up.

The committee, which also met Friday, was chaired by Home Secretary Theresa May and included members of the government and the security forces.

British Prime Minister David Cameron is currently at his countryside retreat at Chequers outside London, where he was to host German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her husband later Saturday, and did not attend the Cobra meeting.

But a spokeswoman for his Downing Street office said he had spoken to the home secretary and was being kept up to date with the situation.

The package was found on a cargo jet that arrived at East Midlands airport in central England from Yemen, May said late Friday, adding that it contained explosives but tests were needed to say if it was a "viable" bomb.

"At this stage I can say that the device did contain explosive material. But it is not yet clear that it was a viable explosive device. The forensic work continues," she said.

The British government suspended direct flights from Yemen in January after a Nigerian "underwear bomber" with links to the Arab country allegedly tried to blow up a US airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009.

May said the government was now "urgently considering what steps need to be put in place regarding security of freight originating from Yemen".

This week, British Airways chairman Martin Broughton called for an easing of the heavy security measures introduced in airports in recent years, saying some passenger checks were "completely redundant".

However, a former British home secretary, John Reid, said there was a "huge and continuing threat from terrorism" and airports must stay vigilant.

"We've got to get away from this idea that if we go a period of time without an incident like this that somehow we can reduce vigilance and reduce security at airports," Reid told the BBC.

Several British newspapers reported that the foreign intelligence service MI6 had tipped off the United States to the alleged bomb plot, although the White House said that it was Saudi Arabia that had raised the alarm.

The Daily Telegraph said MI6 had uncovered the existence of the packages after one of its officers responsible for Yemen had received a tip-off.

The Guardian said MI6 notified Washington within minutes of the discovery of the package at 3:28 am (0228 GMT) on Friday.

It arrived on a US-registered cargo plane at East Midlands airport during a routine stopover en route to Chicago via Philadelphia, police said.

Officers examined the package before declaring there was no threat, but they reinstalled security cordons a few hours later to take a closer look.

© 2010 AFP

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