Air France terror inquiry founders
No arrests made by French; US remains on alert
WASHINGTON -- A terror inquiry into passengers on three canceled holiday flights from Paris to Los Angeles appeared to falter yesterday as French authorities said that no arrests had been made and that an antiterror judge declined to start an investigation based on the evidence gathered so far. But authorities want to talk with several ticketed passengers who did not show up for the flights.
"There has not been an investigation started by the antiterror judge in France," said Natalie Loiseau, a spokeswoman for the French Embassy in Washington. "People have been screened and questioned, but no one has been arrested. I would not say that [it was a false alarm] because some people did not come for the check-in. It's still up in the air, and it's wise to be cautious."
Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin of France ordered Air France to cancel two Christmas Eve flights and a Christmas Day flight at the urging of US officials who shared intelligence indicating that Al Qaeda may have been plotting to hijack one or more of the planes and use them as missiles against an American city.
Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge had put the United States on "high alert" Dec. 21 for an attack, citing increased "chatter" in intercepted communications about the potential for an attack, possibly involving foreign air carriers bound for the United States.
The French news agency AFP quoted an unnamed antiterror investigator as saying that the United States had given the French counterespionage service DST the name of a Tunisian man with a pilot's license.
American authorities thought the man might be tied to Al Qaeda, the source said, but a DST investigation determined that the man was still in Tunisia and was not in the DST's files.
But the Reuters news agency quoted an unnamed official yesterday as saying one or more terror suspects may have escaped because of a premature disclosure in France of the security concerns behind the cancellation of the flights.
Yesterday, White House spokesman Scott McClellan, speaking to reporters flying with President Bush to Crawford, Texas, cautioned that the period of high alert is not over, noting the "ongoing nature of the threat and the continuing efforts that are underway." "We are working to make sure that we are doing everything we can to protect the American people and prevent attacks," he said.
A US counterterrorism official said authorities think the canceled Air France flights and stepped-up security on foreign flights bound for the United States may have "deterred" terrorist operatives with plans to use airliners in attacks similar to those that occurred on Sept. 11, 2001.
"It may have shaken up things a bit for them," he said.
But he emphasized that the "threat window has not closed," and said the Department of Homeland Security and local authorities remain vigilant about the potential for multiple attacks in the coming days, including the possible use of so-called dirty bombs that could spread radioactive material.
A spokesman for Air France said yesterday that the airline had resumed regular service and had not been told anything further about the investigation. About 1,800 would-be passengers who were affected by the six cancellations -- the three from France to Los Angeles and the three return legs -- had all been rescheduled.
"We have resumed our flights as of today, and everything is back to normal," Jean-Marie Busch said.
Asked about the apparently differing views from Washington and Paris about the seriousness of the Air France case, McClellan said only that the United States appreciated the help from its partners in the war on terrorism.
"We . . . continue to work very closely with our international partners, and we continue to share information with our international partners," he said. "We appreciate the assistance that is being provided by our international partners."
There is precedent for air terror on a flight from Paris to the United States. Two years ago, Richard C. Reid, a British citizen who had converted to Islam and proclaimed himself a disciple of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, tried to blow up an American Airlines flight to Miami with explosives hidden in his shoes.
Members of the crew and passengers tackled the 30-year-old man and prevented him from lighting the fuse. He was sentenced to life in prison for the Dec. 22 incident.
Also in the war on terrorism, the US government reacted yesterday to the attempted assassination Dec. 25 of President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan. The key US ally narrowly escaped harm as his convoy was ambushed by two suicide bombers.
"We were dismayed to hear that a bomb blast occurred near President Musharraf's motorcade in Rawalpindi," State Department spokesman Lou Fintor said. "We are pleased that the president and his traveling party escaped unhurt, and we extend our condolences to the families of the two policemen and other victims of this bomb blast. We hope the Pakistani authorities identify the perpetrators of this criminal act and soon bring them to justice."
Fintor said the State Department is issuing a new warning concerning Americans who have stayed in Pakistan despite a recent travel warning. They should avoid crowds and demonstrations, keep a low profile, vary times and routes for all required travel, and ensure that travel documents are current, Fintor said. They should be particularly vigilant about attackers disguised as street vendors or beggars in crowded streets, he added.
"Sectarian and separatist terrorists within Pakistan continue to target American and other Western interests as well as those of certain indigenous groups," he said. "Bombings and assassinations continue to occur throughout Pakistan."
Globe correspondent Bryan Bender and Anne E. Kornblut of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.