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Monday, 17 February, 2003, 16:12 GMT
Man held after airport grenade find
Stranded passengers at Gatwick Airport
Passengers grounded after grenade find at Gatwick
A man is being questioned by anti-terrorism police after smuggling a live hand grenade into the UK through Gatwick Airport.

The north terminal of the Sussex airport was shut down and evacuated for five hours after the grenade was discovered in the 37-year-old Venezuelan's luggage on Thursday.

The airport was reopened at 2000 GMT, amid questions over why the grenade had not been detected in the plane's hold.

The man arrived in Britain on British Airways flight 2048 from Caracas in Venezuela.

It reinforces that we really do have a problem because that's the other thing people have been saying - that we are making it all up

David Blunkett

Customs said he was stopped in the "nothing to declare" channel, after an official saw "something suspicious" in his bag.

He was arrested under anti-terrorism laws and is being held at a central London police station, while the grenade has been sent for forensic examination.

BA cancelled its scheduled flight to Caracas on Friday, while it investigated why the grenade had not been found during baggage screening.

The arrest followed a security clampdown at London's other major airport, Heathrow, which involved tanks and a military cordon.

The Heathrow operation was sparked by MI5 intelligence that a group was plotting to shoot down an aircraft, the BBC's Margaret Gilmore has learned.

Two men were arrested under the Terrorism Act near the airport on Thursday, but police said they were held as a "precautionary measure".

Explosives threat

At Gatwick, thousands of irritated passengers were left stranded on board planes and in the terminal, after planes were cancelled following the grenade find.

Many had to sleep in hotels overnight, before booking themselves on alternative flights on Friday.

Among them were troops from the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards who had flown in from Germany for a last weekend with loved ones before being deployed to the Gulf.

Police checking cars in a village near Heathrow

Trooper Ryan Reid, 26, who was hoping to get a connecting flight to Edinburgh, said: "It's so frustrating. We haven't got much time and we're due to head back on Tuesday."

BA cancelled 21 - mostly European - flights out of Gatwick and a further 21 incoming flights were also cancelled as a knock-on.

It hopes to clear the backlog of flights by Friday morning.

A spokesman for the home secretary said people should not "jump to conclusions" about the Gatwick arrest.

"It is not uncommon for people in airports to be discovered with some form of weaponry. It doesn't mean they are all al-Qaeda terrorists," he said.

GRENADE'S JOURNEY
Passenger boards BA flight 2048 in Venezuela on Thursday
Plane touches down at Gatwick at 1323 GMT
Passenger stopped at 1430 by suspicious customs officers
Passenger arrested and terminal evacuated until 2000 GMT
However, Home Secretary David Blunkett said the arrests showed the need for vigilance.

"First, it reinforces that we really do have a problem because that's the other thing people have been saying - that we are making it all up and that it doesn't exist, which is absolute nonsense.

"Secondly, it means the security services are on the ball and are picking these things up.

"Thirdly, over the next few days we need to follow these leads through."

Nimrod surveillance

There are 450 troops and about 1,700 extra police officers patrolling at Heathrow - guarding key sites and stopping vehicles under flight paths within about eight miles of the airport.

The Ministry of Defence has confirmed a single Nimrod maritime surveillance aircraft has been flying over London, "to aid communications on the ground".

Earlier on Thursday, Mr Blunkett said the terror threat at Heathrow was serious but the public should be "alert, not alarmed".

Passengers queuing at Gatwick
Irate passengers trapped at Gatwick
The home secretary was speaking in the House of Commons after bowing to pressure from opposition parties to deliver a statement on the security operation at the world's busiest airport.

He said he made it clear last year that there would be heightened security at airports and other key transport hubs and that there were terrorists intent on taking British lives and damaging the UK.

He stressed there was no need for the public to cancel holidays.

Ministers have denied the exercise was a publicity stunt ahead of a war against Iraq.

The government and police said the ongoing alert was linked to fears al-Qaeda could use the end of the Muslim festival of Eid, which runs until Saturday, as a trigger for an attack on London.

Extra police have been drafted in at other airports, including Manchester, Stansted, Leeds Bradford International and Jersey.


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