30 Oct 2010

Australia steps up security after terrorism alert

8:53 pm on 30 October 2010

All inbound air cargo from Dubai and Doha to Australia will be heavily screened following an international security scare.

Security alerts are in place at airports in Britain and the United States where the authorities are examining suspicious packages found on cargo planes en route from Yemen.

Acting Australian Prime Minister Wayne Swan received a security brief while visiting Townsville on Saturday afternoon, the ABC reports.

He says the Office of Transport Security has issued directions to the aviation industry to take extra precautions, though "There is no information that Australia is a target".

United States President Barack Obama says the two packages, addressed to Jewish synagogues in Chicago, apparently contained explosive material and were a "credible terrorist threat"

The White House says it was tipped off by Saudi Arabia to the threat.

Informed late on Thursday (local time), Mr Obama immediately ordered cargo planes at Philadelphia and Newark international airports to be towed to isolation and checked - because they were thought to contain further packages from Yemen.

Fighter jets scrambled

US and Canadian fighter jets were scrambled to accompany an Emirates plane into New York but Emirati authorities later said the plane was not carrying cargo from Yemen.

"We will continue to pursue additional protective measures as long as it takes to ensure the safety and security of our citizens," Mr Obama told a special press conference at the White House.

Top officials reassured the public that the threat level to the United States was unchanged, though the Department of Homeland Security announced it had boosted security measures.

Mr Obama made it clear he suspected Al Qaeda's Yemeni-based affiliate of being behind the plot.

Yemeni officials said their government had launched a full investigation and was working closely on the incident with international partners, including the United States.

US media are reporting that the packages, which held a wire-rigged ink toner cartridge and suspicious powder, may have contained the explosive PETN, the same substance used by would-be 2009 Christmas day bomber Farouk Abdulmutallab and 2001 attempted shoe-bomber Richard Reid.

One was found on a United Parcel Service (UPS) cargo plane that arrived at East Midlands Airport in Britain on Friday, on its way from Yemen to Chicago via Philadelphia in the United States.

The other was at a FedEx facility in Dubai, Reuters reports. The international cargo company subsequently embargoed all shipments originating from Yemen.

'Potentially sinister' device

Parts of East Midlands Airport were sealed off after the alert was sparked at 3.30am local time on Friday, and a freight distribution centre was evacuated while the package was examined.

Explosives officers were sent to the airport, though the BBC quotes unnamed sources as saying the device, while "potentially sinister", was not a bomb. The package was reported to be an ink toner cartridge that had been tampered with.

Mr Obama said the parcels were bound for "two places of Jewish worship in Chicago".

An official of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago told Reuters the organisation had been notified that synagogues should be on the alert.

New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly says a package from Yemen on a delivery truck in New York was examined and cleared.