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Despite threats and closed US embassies, no attacks

By John Donnelly, Globe Staff, 9/12/2002

WASHINGTON - Americans at home and abroad took extra safety precautions yesterday, following heightened terror alerts based on intelligence that warned of possible attacks on the Sept. 11 anniversary. The day passed overseas with no major incidents.

Underscoring the threat to global security, nine US embassies were closed for at least the day; three embassies and four consulates received envelopes containing unidentified white powder, sparking concern of an anthrax attack; Pakistani police engaged in a shootout with suspected Al Qaeda members; and the US ambassador to Yemen confirmed that two suspects arrested last month in connection with an explosion belong to Al Qaeda.

For US intelligence officials, however, the big news was the absence of news.

''We had a lot of places [operating] under the highest threat levels, but those embassies made it through the day,'' said a US intelligence official who was in New York City in connection to President Bush's visit yesterday and today. ''There's an ongoing threat. It's just better to be safe than sorry. We're just taking the proper precautions based on the confluence of events.''

Defense officials said the military expanded jet fighter patrols over 10 US cities. In Washington, armed missile launchers were stationed near several sites, and Vice President Dick Cheney spent a second day in seclusion to protect the presidential line of succession in case of attack.

In Southeast Asia, six US diplomatic offices - embassies in Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia, and Vietnam and consulates in Indonesia and Vietnam - were closed yesterday and most will remain closed indefinitely while security is reassessed, officials said.

Embassies in Pakistan, Malawi, Tajikistan, United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain closed or shut down services to the public for the day. The embassy in Bahrain posted a statement on its Web site saying the US government had credible indications that further terrorist acts were planned and ''such actions may be imminent and include suicide operations.''

The UN consulate in Sao Paulo, Brazil, also closed for the day as a precaution.

Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly sent a letter to the Philippine foreign minister warning that terrorists could use truck bombs on the anniversary. The US has joined Filipino forces to hunt members of Abu Sayyaf, which has been linked to Al Qaeda.

''Intelligence evaluation indicates that Al Qaeda operatives are prepared to launch truck bomb attacks and they are in possession of several tons of ammonium nitrate,'' Kelly said in the letter for Foreign Minister Blas Ople, who is in New York. ''The intelligence community considers the information credible.''

The US intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said much of the information on possible attacks in Asia came from suspected Al Qaeda member, Omar al-Farouq. Farouq, who was based in Indonesia, has been in US custody for a few months, the official said. His identity was first reported by The New York Times. Some of his information led to the closing of the embassies.

''Closing our embassies in several locations in Southeast Asia and further on may not sound like much of a victory to you, but the fact that we're able to obtain and assess credible information about the threat to those facilities may well save the lives of our brothers and sisters,'' Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said Tuesday night in Washington.

In Karachi, Pakistan, police fought a pitched battle with Al Qaeda suspects holed up in an apartment yesterday. Two suspects were killed and five captured in the fighting, as Pakistan stepped up pressure on the remnants of the group. Police said one of the dead militants and one of those arrested were Arabs, but their nationalities were not known. The rest were Afghans, according to police.

In Washington, a State Department official said US embassies or consulates in Germany, Denmark, Italy, and Luxembourg had received letters containing white powder yesterday. There was no indication that the powder was dangerous but laboratories will test the samples, officials said.

Police in Hamburg said the powder at the US embassy there turned out to be sugar.

Material from wire services was included in this report.

This story ran on page A25 of the Boston Globe on 9/12/2002.
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