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Thursday, August 05, 2004

Target: Heathrow airport

al Qaeda suspects arrested in UK

An image taken by a local resident on a mobile phone on August 3, 2004 shows anti-terror arrests taking place in Blackburn in northern England. British police arrested 13 men in a series of major anti-terror raids across the country, just days after the United States issued a high alert warning.Photo by Reuters

LONDON (Reuters) - A senior al Qaeda figure planning to attack Heathrow airport was among 12 terrorism suspects arrested in Britain two days ago, newspapers report.

None of the reports quoted a named source and all differed in details, but most linked the arrests with recent swoops in Pakistan and this week's alert in New York and Washington.

If true, that could help persuade sceptics in the United States who have questioned the justification for their alert, which led to some of the most disruptive security measures since the September 11, 2001, attacks.

Police sources could not confirm Thursday's reports but said they appeared to be based on information discovered on computer equipment seized in Pakistan.

Police say the new British arrests were the result of a long-planned, intelligence-led operation that began before recent roundups in Pakistan.

The government played down reports that Heathrow, one of the world's busiest airports, was an imminent target.

"We've always adopted the policy ... that if there was a specific threat, a specific target, then we would tell people, as was the case over British Airways flights to America some months ago," cabinet minister Peter Hain told BBC radio.

The Times, the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail and the Sun each ran versions of the story, citing unnamed Pakistani officials saying plans to attack Heathrow were found on the computer of Mohammad Naeem Noor Khan, held last month in Lahore.

The reports also mentioned a suspected senior al Qaeda operative in Britain named Abu Musa al-Hindi or Abu Eisa al-Hindi. Three papers said Hindi was tasked with attacking Heathrow. Three said he was among the 12 arrested.

CNN reported on Thursday that Hindi had been in contact with Khan.