Yemen hunts suspects behind air parcel bombs

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Yemeni security forces were on Sunday searching for suspects who posted parcel bombs on two US-bound flights after arresting a woman over an alleged Al-Qaeda plot that sparked a global air cargo alert.

The woman was detained on Saturday after being tracked down through a mobile number on a receipt for the explosives-filled packages, which were found on freighter jets in Britain and Dubai the day before, officials said.

But Abdul Rahman Barman of the Yemeni rights group Hood said he doubted the woman who he identified as 22-year-old Hanan al-Samawi was behind the plot as she had no known Islamist links and because Al-Qaeda was unlikely to have left an incriminating phone number on the packages.

Speaking to AFP on the telephone, he added his group had received information that "all employees" from the Sanaa offices of the FedEx and UPS used to post the parcels had been detained for questioning on Saturday.

Security forces had closed the offices of the US firms on Saturday, while setting up barricades in most areas of the Yemeni capital, checking the identification of passengers of cars.

Searches of passengers and their luggage were also stepped up at the airport, witnesses and security officials said.

Security measures were also boosted around the world as British Prime Minister David Cameron said the bomb found in his country was apparently designed to blow the aircraft out of the sky.

"Yemeni security forces arrested a woman suspected of sending two parcel bombs," Yemen's defence ministry said.

President Ali Abdullah Saleh said security services "received information that a girl has sent the parcels from the two cargo companies," apparently referring to UPS and FedEx.

The arrested woman, a medicine student at Sanaa university and whose father is a petroleum engineer, was held with her mother, a Yemeni security official told AFP.

Yemeni officials also said they were examining 26 other seized packages.

US officials have said the two intercepted packages were addressed to synagogues in Chicago.

US President Barack Obama has made it clear he suspects the involvement of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) -- the Yemen-based branch of Osama bin Laden's extremist network -- and vowed to wipe out the organisation.

In Britain, Cameron said of the bomb discovered at East Midlands airport in central England that authorities "believe that the device was designed to go off on the airplane", possibly over British soil.

Dubai police said the parcel bomb found there bore the "hallmarks of Al-Qaeda". It involved the high explosive PETN hidden inside a computer printer with a circuit board and mobile phone SIM card attached.

Britain's Sunday Telegraph newspaper and The Washington Post said investigators were focusing on a Saudi Al-Qaeda explosives expert based in Yemen, 28-year-old Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri.

Asiri's brother Abdullah attempted to kill the Saudi deputy interior minister in August 2009 in a suicide attack that reportedly involved explosives concealed inside his own body.

PETN, or Pentaerythritol tetranitrate, was used in that attempt by would-be "underpants bomber" Farouk Abdulmutallab and also in 2001 by attempted shoe-bomber Richard Reid.

The New York Times reported that investigators said the bombs were expertly constructed.

The one discovered at Dubai airport was concealed in a Hewlett-Packard desktop printer, with high explosives packed into a printer cartridge to avoid detection by scanners, it said.

"The wiring of the device indicates that this was done by professionals," the paper quoted an official involved in the investigation as saying. "It was set up so that if you scan it, all the printer components would look right."

The bomb discovered in Britain was also hidden in a printer cartridge, the report said.

A rabbi at one of the Chicago synagogues allegedly targeted in the plot said the community's website was visited dozens of times recently by individuals from Egypt, The Wall Street Journal reported.

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

Germany and France announced they would no longer accept air freight from Yemen. Australia said it would screen all air cargo from Dubai and Doha.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel was due to discuss counter-terrorism cooperation during talks in Britain with Cameron on Sunday, Downing Street said.

© 2010 AFP

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