Fri, Aug 15, 2003 - Page 1 News List

British Airways suspends flights to Saudi Arabia


The US and Britain, citing credible intelligence reports, warned their nationals on Wednesday of terror threats to aviation and other interests in Saudi Arabia, and British Airways suspended all flights to the kingdom.

The warnings followed two clashes in three days in the Saudi capital Riyadh between police and Islamic militants that began with a shootout on Sunday and continued with a full-blown gun battle on Tuesday.

As the George W. Bush administration hailed the success of a sting operation that netted a would-be arms smuggler, the State Department asked Americans to defer travel to Saudi Arabia.

"The US government has received indications of terrorist threats aimed at American and Western interests, including the targeting of transportation and civil aviation," it said in a statement.

"There is credible information that terrorists have targeted Western aviation interests in Saudi Arabia," it added. "American citizens in Saudi Arabia should remain vigilant, particularly in public places."

Earlier, Britain issued a security warning. "There is credible intelligence of a serious threat to UK aviation interests in Saudi Arabia," a government spokesman said.

British Airways, the only British carrier that flies to the kingdom, said it had decided to suspend flights after consultations with the British government.

Other European carriers said they had no plans to stop Saudi flights. When a similar warning of a threat to British aircraft in Kenya was issued in May, British Airways was the only major airline to suspend flights. They resumed last month.

As the world's top oil supplier, Saudi Arabia is vital to the world economy and a spate of bombings and bloody clashes there has raised concerns over world fuel supplies.

The bombing of a Western compound in Riyadh in May, in which 35 people were killed, triggered a crackdown by Saudi authorities on Islamic militants. Since then at least 16 suspects and 11 police officers have been killed in a series of clashes.

Both Britain and the US have already warned their citizens against non-essential travel to the kingdom.

US officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said a document found during a roundup of suspected Islamic militants this week had indicated that King Khalid airport had been under surveillance, presumably for a possible attack.

The document did not specify what type of attack but mentioned British planes, one official said, adding: "It's clear that they were paying attention to British planes."

US President George W. Bush told reporters at his Texas ranch that the sting operation underscored efforts to improve airport security, declaring America "a safe place for people to fly."

Briton Hemant Lakhani, 68, an arms dealer accused of trying to sell a Russian-made shoulder-fired surface-to-air missile, appeared in court in Newark, New Jersey, on Wednesday on charges of providing material support to terrorists and of illegal weapons dealing.

Separate criminal complaints were filed against a New York City jeweller and an Indian citizen who arrived in the US from Malaysia. Prosecutors said both men had served as financial middlemen for the would-be deal.

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