Fears of a major terrorist attack on British interests intensified on Sunday night after the UK government said it was taking the unprecedented step of deploying armed sky marshals on flights between the UK and America.
The move, which will see plainclothed officers mingling with passengers, follows the heightened state of alert in the US and coincided with a government warning yesterday that terrorists could be in the final stages of planning an attack in Saudi Arabia.
In a joint statement, the transport secretary, Alistair Darling, and the home secretary, David Blunkett, said the introduction of armed officers was a "a responsible and prudent step" and that the sky marshals would be deployed "where appropriate".
Last week the US homeland security department raised the national alert to its second-highest level, code orange, following reports that terrorists were planning to hijack a French airliner and use it as a missile against a US city.
Air France cancelled several transatlantic passenger flights after officials passed on "credible" security threats involving passengers scheduled to fly to Los Angeles on flights from Paris.
On Sunday night Blunkett said: "The last few days have seen the United States increase their general threat and security levels and what we are proposing is a proportionate and appropriate level of response at a time when the threat to both our countries and around the world remains real and serious."
But the British Airline Pilots Association reacted angrily to the plans.
"Our view has always been that putting sky marshals on planes is the worst thing you can do -- we don't want guns on planes," said the general secretary, Jim McAuslan.
"What they should be doing is investing in security on the ground. Our advice to pilot members is that if they are not comfortable with arrangements they should not fly."
The organization's chairman, Captain Mervyn Granshaw, said the announcement had come out of the blue. "Pilots are fed up with security initiatives being dreamt up at the Department of Transport without any consultation at all with pilots," he said.
However, some security experts welcomed the move. Professor Paul Wilkinson from the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at St Andrews University said al-Qaeda operatives still wanted to target civil aviation.
He said security measures at many airports were still not tight enough, making on-board security particularly important.
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