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UK ‘chemical bomb plot foiled’

Intelligence and security services are said to have intercepted communications between members of a group thought to be sympathetic to al-Qaeda.

The group is reported to have been trying to obtain a combination of explosive and a highly toxic substance called osmium tetroxide.

However, the police have refused to comment on the story in any way – the story emerged in the USA and has been widely reported on both sides of the Atlantic.

Without naming its source, the BBC said the potential target was thought to be areas in which there would be concentrations of people, possibly within a confined space.

Osmium tetroxide is used mainly in research laboratories. It can attack soft human tissue and could blind anyone who breathed in its fumes or cause them to choke to death in agony, according to British and US press reports.

Britain’s Sky News network reported that intelligence sources, which it did not name, had confirmed a plan to launch a chemical attack in Britain had been prevented.

Sky added the security services were alerted after a mention of osmium tetroxide was picked up by a UK Government electronic listening centre in Cheltenham, southwest England.

Like the BBC, it did not say when the alleged plot had been thwarted.

Britain, a key ally of the United States in Iraq and in its “war on terror”, remains on a heightened state of alert against a feared attack on its soil, particularly following the Madrid bombings.

In another development, the Czech Republic said it was setting up a NATO-backed camp for foreign military to be trained in combating chemical attacks of the kind feared in London.

Before the end of the year, some 400 foreign military personnel – including Austrians, Estonians and Greeks – will attend the Vyskov camp, believed to be the first of its kind in the world.

Europe alert to terror threat

As Britain’s most senior police officer warned an attack was “inevitable”, France’s justice ministry said an unknown Muslim group had threatened to attack France and French interests abroad, triggering an official inquiry.

Le Parisien, the newspaper that received the threat, said the group had threatened reprisals because of a law banning Islamic headscarves from state schools.

French President Jacques Chirac said France was not currently a specific target, “but like all democracies, it is not immune from terrorist acts.”

And an opinion poll in Britain revealed Britons feel vulnerable because of their nation’s role in Iraq.

The opinion poll has indicated 75 percent of Britons feel vulnerable to attack, because of Prime Minister Tony Blair’s stance on Iraq.

It also found just one percent think Britain joining the US invasion and occupation of Iraq has made their country a safer place.

Meanwhile, the Commissioner of London’s Metropolitan Police, Sir John Stevens, said police and security services have dramatically stepped up their anti-terrorist efforts, and London remains on a high state of alert. He has also urged all citizens to be vigilant.

He said: “We are talking about the tubes and the rail systems but we’re also talking about London generally.

“We’re talking about buses and we’re talking about anything of suspicion that is seen in clubs, nightclubs and the like.”

Sir John said he knew that police and security services had already stopped attacks from happening.

London Mayor Ken Livingstone said, “It would be miraculous if, with all the terrorist resources arranged against us, terrorists did not get through.”

The European Union’s Irish presidency has also bumped terrorism onto the agenda of an EU summit late next week.

The attacks in Madrid led to a surprise win for the Socialist Party and Prime Minister-elect Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero lost no time in declaring he would pull Spanish troops out of Iraq in line with the vast majority of public opinion.

“If that is their decision, we can adapt readily to compensate for the loss of those forces,” said Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, the top US commander in Iraq.

But President George W Bush, without directly mentioning Spain, called on foreign troops to stay.

“It’s essential that we remain side by side with the Iraqi people as they begin the process of self-government,” he said.

The FBI in Washington offered help in tracking down the Madrid killers, but said it was up to Spain to invite assistance.

In Brussels, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation ordered the extension of anti-terrorism surveillance patrols across the entire Mediterranean, saying the move had been long planned but had taken on special relevance as a result of the Madrid bombings.

Spanish socialists win election

The Popular Party (PP) was headed for defeat in Sunday’s plebiscite after an official count of nearly 75 percent of the ballots showed the opposition Socialists with a clear lead.

The figures showed the PP with 37.1 percent and the Socialists (PSOE) with 43.3 percent, according to figures from the interior ministry.

The vote was played out against the highly emotional aftermath of last week’s Madrid railway massacre in which 200 people were killed.

PSOE secretary Jose Blanco said “it’s a clear victory in terms of votes and seats,” sparking euphoria at the party headquarters in Madrid.

The conservative Popular Party of outgoing Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, which was ahead in the polls only a week ago, apparently took a pasting because of its support for the United States in the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Only a week ago, four public opinion polls predicted the Popular Party would win with a reduced majority.

The elections came three days after a series of bomb blasts on four Madrid commuter trains that provoked high emotions among many voters against the government.

The government’s support for the US-led occupation of Iraq apparently proved a liability after a statement attributed to al-Qaeda said this was the reason for carrying out the devastating attacks, in which 1,500 people were wounded.

Up to 90 percent of the population was against the Iraq war and occupation, to which Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar has contributed 1,300 Spanish troops.

Mr Aznar was stepping down after two terms as prime minister having handed over the PP reins to former deputy Mariano Rajoy, who was up against PSOE rival Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.

Mosul endures surge of violence

Two civilian security guards – a Briton and a Canadian – were killed in a drive-by shooting in Iraq’s north on Sunday.

Iraqi police said masked men attacked the guards as they were travelling in a two-car convoy towards a power station serving the east of Mosul where the foreigners worked.

Three British engineers in the first car managed to drive into the compound as the shooting began and escaped unhurt but the second car got caught up in the automatic weapons fire.

Meanwhile, the only woman in Iraq’s interim government has escaped an assassination attempt, also near Mosul.

Police say three of public works minister Nasreen Barwari’s bodyguards were killed when unknown assailants opened fire with assault rifles on her convoy. A fourth bodyguard was wounded.

The 37-year-old is one of five Kurdish ministers in the interim government that is also made up of 13 Shi’ite Arabs, five Sunni Arabs, one Turkomen and one Christian.

Last September a woman member of Iraq’s interim Governing Council was gunned down in Baghdad.

In another development four Iraqis were killed and two US soldiers wounded today during a shootout in Mosul.

Gunmen opened fire on a US military police vehicle in the al-Hadbaa neighbourhood in north Mosul, said the US military.

Four gunmen were killed and two US troops received “non life-threatening wounds” and were transported to hospital, said a spokesman.

Mosul has been a hotbed of anti-coalition violence with near-daily attacks on US troops and their Iraqi allies.

In further violence a police chief survived an assassination attempt on the outskirts of Mosul, but several people were hurt when his bodyguards traded fire with the assailants.

“There was an assassination attempt early this evening (Sunday) targeting Major General Mohammed Khairi al-Barhawi, the police chief of Nineveh governorate,” said Colonel Mozahem Khalaf Abdelrahman.

Unknown gunmen also shot and wounded a Lebanese telecommunications expert in the leg on Sunday in Mosul, Iraqi police and medical sources said.

Elsewhere, a US soldier and at least five Iraqis were wounded in separate bomb attacks across the country.

A roadside bomb near the flashpoint town of Fallujah seriously damaged one vehicle as a US military convoy passed by, a witness said.

In Baghdad, US administrator Paul Bremer turned over the keys of the first of Iraq’s 25 ministries to interim health minister Khidr Abbas, less than a fortnight before the first anniversary of the ouster of Saddam Hussein’s regime.

But hundreds of followers of a firebrand Shiite Muslim leader burned an American flag in an angry protest in the capital Sunday after the coalition shut down his newspaper for 60 days for inciting violence.

Mourning begins in Spain

Ten explosions ripped apart four commuter trains during rush hour in the worst terror attack in Europe since the Lockerbie airliner bombing in 1988 that killed 270.

Almost 24 hours after the blasts, around sixty victims had not been identified. A makeshift morgue has been set up in the exhibition centre in Madrid.

Meanwhile, the interior ministry published on its website a list of the names of 1,175 of the more than 1,400 people who survived with injuries. Around 370 of the injured remain hospitalized, 45 of them in a critical state and 15 in a very serious condition.

Madrid’s hotel association and two hotel chains have offered to accommodate families of the victims free of charge.

The Spanish government was quick to blame the Basque separatist group, ETA. Acting with unusual haste the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution blaming the group after diplomats said they accepted the accusation put forward by Madrid.

Spanish Foreign Minister Ana Palacio today told French radio on Friday that “everything appears to indicate” that ETA was behind the blasts.

However, ETA has denied responsibility for the attack.

Investigatons continue and authorities have not ruled out the possibility that the attack was orchestrated by Al-Qaeda. A letter purporting to be from a group linked to Al-Qaeda was sent to a London newspaper claiming responsibility for the bombings.

Spanish authorities also found a van with detonators and an Arabic-language audiotape in Alcala de Henares, 15 miles outside Madrid. The vehicle was stolen from the city on 28 February.

Spain was a strong supporter of the US-led war on terrorism following September 11.

The possibility of Al-Qaeda involvement sent sharemarkets plummeting.

The Dow Jones index slid more than one percent, following European indices down. Share prices in Tokyo opened 1.18 percent lower on Friday and Australian shares also eased.

Meanwhile, leaders from around the world have expressed their condolences.

A nationwide rally will be held on Friday, beginning at 7pm local time which the Spanish government said would show solidarity “with the victims, with the constitution and for the defeat of terrorism”.


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NASA smashes speed record

The unpiloted X-43A aircraft used a scramjet engine to briefly reach a speed of 7,700 km/h (4,780 mph) or Mach 7.

It was launched from a B-52 bomber off the coast of California, and then flew for 10 seconds on its own power before gliding for six minutes and then falling into the Pacific Ocean.

NASA spokeswoman Leslie Williams said: “Everything went according to plan. I actually thought it was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. We’ve been waiting a few years.”

Rather than carrying both the fuel and oxygen needed to provide acceleration, like a conventional rocket engine does, scramjet engines carry only hydrogen fuel and pull the oxygen needed to burn that fuel from the atmosphere.

Ms Williams said: “It doesn’t have any moving parts. You have to get it up to at least Mach five because the air must go through supersonically to make it work.

“It scoops the oxygen, rams oxygen into the inlet and then comes out the end, out the nozzle in the back as thrust. So it really has no moving parts except for the front engine door… and scramjets have been around actually for 30-something years but like I said it’s only been done in ground testing facilities, it’s never been done in free flight.”

The success of the NASA test, which comes three years after an attempt to fly an X-43A ended in the destruction of the vehicle when its launch system failed, was hailed by project manager Joel Sitz.

He said: “The ramjet-scramjet is the Holy Grail of aeronautics in my mind.”

Researchers at the NASA Dryden Flight Research Centre at Edwards Air Force Base, on the western edge of the Mojave Desert north of Los Angeles, hope the new engine will revolutionise aviation, speeding the development of significantly faster aircraft and lowering the cost of launching payloads.

198 killed in Madrid blasts

World leaders condemned the attack as an assault on democracy, coming just three days before Spanish general elections scheduled for Sunday.

The Government has announced three days of mourning over the atrocity and election campaigns were halted early, although the elections will go ahead.

Interior Minister Angel Acebes said there was “no doubt” the separatist Basque group ETA, listed as a terrorist organisation by the US and EU, was behind the attack.

The group has been held responsible for more than 800 deaths over a nearly four-decade violent campaign for an independent homeland in northern Spain.

However, Mr Acebes says the government has not excluded the possibility that Islamic terrorists carried out the attacks, after police discovered a van in Madrid containing detonators and a tape in Arabic.

The banned Basque political party Batasuna, denied ETA militants were involved, instead blaming “Arab resistance”.

Batasuna party leader Arnaldo Otegi highlighted Spain’s role in the US-led occupation of Iraq, which has already drawn warnings of revenge attacks from al-Qaeda.

Mr Acebes says a total of 10 bombs exploded within minutes of each other in and around three railway stations in the southeast of the capital, starting at around 7:30am (local time) when trains were packed with suburban commuters.

Another three devices were found and set off in controlled explosions.

A Spanish anti-terrorist official says the explosive in the attacks was dynamite, commonly used by ETA militants.

He added that the devices appeared to have been on timers and some may have been placed in the train wagons themselves.

Scenes of carnage followed the blasts, with emergency workers attending to critically injured passengers and hauling away bodies to a makeshift morgue.

“The coach behind mine was packed with bodies. Some people were burnt in their seats,” said one passenger who survived, Antonio Villacanas.

“There were people like me going to school. It was a strange sensation. I can’t explain the feeling, dead people all around,” said a student at Atocha station.

Spain’s King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia visited survivors in hospital.

A spokesman for the royal household said the monarch would make a statement later on Thursday.

No charges for second Delta Brit

Tarek Dergoul, 26, a former care worker from east London, had been questioned by anti-terrorist police since being flown back from the United States detention camp in Cuba.

Three of five men returned to Britain on Tuesday on a Royal Air Force (RAF) flight are still being questioned by police in London.

Four of the returnees – Ruhal Ahmed, 22, Asif Iqbal, 22, and Shafiq Rasul, 26, and Dergoul – were arrested by police on their arrival at an RAF base outside London.

A firth man Jamal al Harith, 37, was only detained at RAF Northolt for four hours under immigration rules before he was reunited with his family at a secret location. He was not charged.

The US released the men from the Camp Delta prison in Cuba two years after their arrest in Afghanistan on suspicion of terrorism.

Mr Dergoul’s lawyer, Louise Christian, had argued for his release on Wednesday under the Terrorism Act, which allows for a review of the detention after 24 hours.

She said Tuesday night’s procedures had gone on far too long, been unnecessary and protracted with fingerprinting continuing late into the night.

“It was very clear that they should have been allowed to sleep long before they were and it was very clear that their cells were too cold,” she said.

But the National Co-ordinator for Terrorism, Deputy Assistant Commissioner Peter Clarke, said normal British law and procedures would be followed “to the letter.”

Four other Britons – Feroz Abbasi, 23, Richard Belmar, 23, and Martin Mubanga, 29, all from London, plus Moazzam Begg, 36, from Birmingham – are still detained at Guantanamo Bay.

UK Home Secretary David Blunkett said they will probably face trial in the US as they had been picked up “in the combat zone” in Afghanistan.

EU appoints anti-terror tsar

At the start of an EU summit overshadowed by the Madrid bombing, former Dutch deputy interior minister Gijs de Vries was named as the counter-terrorism “tsar”, to work under EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana.

New measures agreed include monitoring data from mobile phone calls and a single EU-wide arrest warrant.

The summit will also seek ways to restart talks on a constitution for the EU that will grow to 25 members in May.

“We the European Union must be sure that everything that can be done to protect our citizens from the scourge of terrorism is done,” said Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, who was chairing the two-day EU summit.

“Terrorism is not confined within national borders. We need to improve our international cooperation… The threat of terrorism is a threat to our security and our democracies and our way of life in the European Union.”

The EU leaders, adopting proposals from emergency interior ministers’ talks in the wake of the March 11 Madrid attacks, also agreed to boost intelligence-sharing, cut funding to extremists and adopt an all-for-one solidarity clause.

But proposals for a European-style CIA failed to win support from countries such as Britain and France which jealously guard their secret intelligence.

Some EU members are also under pressure to implement measures already agreed on after the September 2001 attacks in the United States, such as a European arrest warrant.

“We have first and foremost to implement the legislation introduced after the events of September 11, 2001,” said European Commission chief Romano Prodi.

“Too many are awaiting ratification in member states.”

After adopting a solemn “anti-terrorism” declaration, the EU leaders were also expected to seek a breakthrough to resume stalled negotiations on a first-ever constitution for the EU, set to expand from 15 to 25 members in May.

Journalist killings on the rise

The war in Iraq has been blamed for the sharp increase from 19 in 2002, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Thirteen journalists, almost a third of the total, were killed in hostile actions in Iraq, while six others died from illness or traffic accidents while covering the war, said the CPJ in its annual report, Attacks on the Press.

It is the highest annual total from a single country since 24 journalists were killed in Algeria in 1995, at the height of civil strife between the government and Islamic militants.

“Western correspondents, who stand out and can be mistaken for coalition personnel or foreigners in general, were particularly vulnerable,” said the report.

However, the bulk of journalists killed last year were far from any battlefield.

Five were killed in the Philippines for their coverage of local corruption or criticising public officials.

Four more died in Colombia, three of them murdered for reports they had written.

The editor-in-chief of a Russian hard-hitting provincial paper was stabbed to death outside his house – the paper’s second editor-in-chief to be murdered in 18 months.

“Most murders of journalists continue to be committed with impunity,” said CPJ executive director Ann Cooper.

The report also pointed out that 136 journalists are behind bars around the world – 36 of them in China and 29 in Cuba. It is the fifth year in a row that China is the greatest jailer of journalists.

The watchdog also pointed out the example of Morocco where a long record of relative tolerance for critical media was broken last year by the arrest of several journalists under a new anti-terrorism law.