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Flights canceled amid security concerns

Associated Press

WASHINGTON – Six U.S.-bound flights from England, Scotland and France were canceled Saturday because of security concerns. The U.S. government said it had fresh indications of al-Qaida’s continued interest in targeting commercial planes flying to the United States.

British Airways grounded the same flight scheduled Sunday and Monday from London’s Heathrow Airport to Dulles International Airport outside Washington, as well as the return flights. Also canceled was a flight from London to Miami on Sunday. In addition, Continental Airlines said it canceled Flight 17 for Sunday from Glasgow, Scotland, to Los Angeles with an intermediate stop in Newark, N.J.

Air France scrubbed the same flight set for Sunday and Monday from Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris to Dulles. As a result, the outbound flights were canceled.

A U.S. government official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said there were concerns about a handful of flights on those foreign carriers and a U.S.-based airline that flies internationally. The official declined to identify the third carrier, which turned out to be Continental.

“We continue to receive threat reporting that indicates al Qaida’s desire to target international aviation,” said Brian Roehrkasse, spokesman for the Homeland Security Department.

Despite those threats, Roehrkasse said the department had no plans to raise the nation’s terror alert level from yellow, or elevated risk of terrorist attack. Yellow is in the middle of the five-color coded scale.

The decision to cancel the flights was made jointly by the U.S., British and French governments, according to a senior U.S. law enforcement official speaking on condition of anonymity.

The U.S. government official said the threat information picked up by intelligence agencies specifically mentioned British Airways flight 223 from London to Dulles; British Airways flight 207 from London to Miami; and Air France flight 026 from Paris to Washington.

An official close to French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin told The Associated Press that the Air France flights were canceled because of “serious threats.” The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, declined to elaborate.

A British Airways spokeswoman said the airline acted on the advice of the British government.

Continental spokesman David Messing said his company canceled the Glasgow-Los Angeles flight “because we were unable to obtain the necessary security clearance from the Department of Homeland Security and its international counterpart.”

Officials from several other U.S. airlines contacted Saturday that fly abroad – American, Delta, United, Northwest and US Airways – said they were unaware of any security threats against their companies or of any flights canceled.

The U.S. government official said the three countries discussed a variety of aviation security steps, such as sky marshals on the U.S.-bound flights, but that Washington placed no demands on the French or British.

The official said there was no direct intelligence to indicate any threat to Sunday’s Super Bowl game in Houston.

A White House spokesman, Trent Duffy, said the cancellations show that “the administration is going to stand guard and protect the American people.”

The law enforcement official said that for weeks, intelligence sources have picked up indications of al-Qaida’s continued interest in using airlines as weapons. But the official said that in the past week the intelligence became more specific, singling out certain flights and airlines.

Some of the flights that have raised concerns are the same as those that drew increased attention when the U.S. terror alert was raised temporarily to orange, or high risk, before Christmas.

It returned on Jan. 9 to yellow, though government officials said heightened security would remain at some airports and in some cities, such as New York, Washington and Los Angeles.