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British Airways Halts Saudi Flights

August 14, 2003|Janet Stobart | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — British Airways suspended all of its flights to Saudi Arabia on Wednesday after a threat of a terrorist attack on a British plane.

The action followed the arrest Monday of 10 suspected terrorists in Saudi Arabia, whom police accused of planning an attack on a British target. The Saudis have been cracking down on Islamic militants since suicide attackers killed 26 people in Riyadh, the capital, on May 12. Nine bombers also died.

British Airways said its decision to stop its four flights a week each to Riyadh and Jidda was made after a meeting with British transportation officials, who warned of "credible intelligence reports of a serious and specific threat against U.K. aviation interests in Saudi Arabia."

"As a matter of precaution we have decided to suspend all flights to Saudi Arabia for the time being, and we will continue to liaise closely with the British government," said Geoff Ward, British Airways' safety and security director.

According to the BBC, the warning came from the government's new Joint Terrorism Assessment Center in London. BBC reports also said that Al Qaeda sympathizers had the Riyadh airport under surveillance. A British aircraft was considered the likely target.

It was the second time this summer that British planes have been grounded by security concerns.

Earlier, British Airways halted all service to and from Kenya after a terrorist alert from the U.S. warned of possible attacks throughout East Africa and Southeast Asia.

British officials at that time warned the nation's airlines that "the threat level to U.K. civil aviation interests in Kenya has risen to imminent."

Kenya was the scene of terrorism in November when a suicide attack at a hotel in Mombasa killed at least 16 people, and terrorists there narrowly missed shooting down a plane carrying Israeli tourists. Although flights to Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, have been resumed, British flights to Mombasa remain on hold.

Wednesday's groundings caused chaos at Heathrow, London's main airport, as passengers complained that they were not informed of the move until the last minute. Many were Saudi families and pilgrims on their way to Mecca.

The Saudi ambassador, Prince Turki al Faisal, said in a statement: "These are normal precautions taken when there is a security alert, wherever it is in the world. The threat is specifically to British Airways. Saudi Airlines has offered to British Airways to take any passengers from or to the kingdom in their stead."

Flights to Saudi Arabia also serve the British expatriate population there, which numbers about 30,000.

Travel advice from the British Foreign Office was updated Wednesday.

"There is information of a threat to British aviation interests in Saudi Arabia. As a precautionary measure, British Airways is currently suspending its flights to Riyadh and Jidda. We advise British nationals against all but essential travel to Saudi Arabia," the office said.

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