Yemen quizzes woman over plane parcel bombs

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Yemeni investigators on Sunday questioned a woman suspected of posting parcel bombs on two US-bound flights in an alleged Al-Qaeda plot that sparked a global air cargo security alert.

The medical student was detained on Saturday after being traced through a phone number on a receipt for the explosives-filled packages, which were found on freighter jets in Britain and Dubai on Friday, Yemeni officials said.

A string of countries further boosted their cargo security measures 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 after a house on the outskirts of the capital Sanaa was surrounded.

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 US firms through which the parcels were sent.

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

The woman is studying medicine at Sanaa university and her father is a petroleum engineer, a Yemeni security official told AFP. She was held with her mother after her mobile phone number was found on the receipt for the parcel bombs, the official added.

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

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, quoting US intelligence sources, said a Saudi Al-Qaeda explosives expert based in Yemen, Ibrahim Hassan Al Asiri, is believed to be the mastermind behind the cargo planes plot.

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.

The White House has said that Saudi Arabia tipped off Washington to the latest bomb plot.

Yemen is also the hiding place for US-born radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who is on a US list of terrorism supporters for alleged links to plots including a failed bombing of an airliner heading for Detroit on Christmas Day 2009.

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

Washington has in the past reportedly carried out direct strikes on Al-Qaeda in Yemen with unmanned drone aircraft and cruise missiles, while also stepping up military assistance and training to Sanaa.

Saleh however warned on Saturday against any foreign intervention in the impoverished Arab nation, vowing: "Yemen is determined to fight terror but will not allow anyone to intervene in its affairs."

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.

German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere announced late Saturday that the country would no longer accept air freight from Yemen, after it emerged that the package found in Britain had also passed through Cologne airport.

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

France's civil aviation authority also announced Saturday it had suspended air freight from Yemen. Australia said it would screen all air cargo from Dubai and Doha.

In the United States, where Obama faces critical mid-term elections on Tuesday, the Department of Homeland Security said it had boosted security measures.

Experts said the bomb plot highlighted the gaps in air cargo security but also the growing innovation of militant groups.

"This is the first time that a terrorist group has used a US air freight company to transport a parcel containing explosives and a detonator," Jean-Charles Brisard, a global consultant on terror groups, told AFP.

© 2010 AFP

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