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Last Updated: Friday, 2 January, 2004, 12:59 GMT
France 'confirms' fighter escorts
Air France plane
Six French planes were cancelled at Christmas
A junior French minister has indirectly confirmed that French and US fighter jets have been tracking passenger planes amid heightened security.

His comments came as France accused the FBI of making mistakes over identifying "suspicious" names on passenger lists.

Concerns over the passengers led to the halting of six flights between Paris and Los Angeles at Christmas.

Reports said one of the US-identified "suspects" was in fact a child and another was a Welsh insurance salesman.

Junior Transport Minister Dominique Bussereau confirmed reports that US fighter jets escorted two Air France flights into Los Angeles earlier this week.

There can be French planes that are near passenger jets. It happens all the time... In periods of maximum security, this kind of procedure is common
Dominique Bussereau
"Currently, the air bases of the countries concerned are on a high state of alert, and it's not unthinkable for civilian aircraft to be followed at a distance by military jets," Mr Bussereau told French radio.

"That has been the case in the United States."

Using military escorts was "part of a raft of security measures that can be implemented at any moment, even if there is no specific threat to a particular flight", he said.

Newspaper reports, quoting witnesses, said the jets escorted the planes on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Mr Bussereau also strongly suggested that rumours of French military escorts for some passenger planes were also true.

A check was carried out in each case and in each case it turned out to be negative
French Interior Ministry on "suspect" names
"There can be French planes that are near passenger jets," he said.

"It happens all the time... In periods of maximum security, this kind of procedure is common."

But France confirmed that particular fears about Paris-Los Angeles flights, which led to six cancellations, were groundless.

"A check was carried out in each case and in each case it turned out to be negative," a spokesman for the Interior Minister told AFP.

"The FBI worked with family names and some family names sound alike."

"The difficulty is compounded when you have no first name or date of birth," he said.

Newspaper report

A report in Friday's edition of the Wall Street Journal said a child was among the passengers singled out, because its name was similar to that of a wanted Tunisian.

The other "suspects" turned out to be an elderly Chinese ex-restaurateur, a Welsh insurance salesman and three French nationals, the paper alleged.

Mr Bussereau also revealed that at least one flight which the US authorities had concerns about had been authorised by France.

BA Boeing 747
British Airways flights have also been hit by security concerns
"We thought that all security measures had been taken, that the verifications of passengers had been such that this flight had every reason to fly," he said.

Strict security measures are in operation at French airports amid international fears of an increased terror threat.

French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy was visiting Charles de Gaulle airport on Friday to witness security procedures for himself.

Amid a continuing US clampdown, British Airways again cancelled one of its three daily passenger flights from London to Washington on Friday, following a similar move on Thursday.

And Aeromexico's daily flight from Mexico City to Los Angeles was also cancelled for two days running.

The BBC's Helen Callaghan
"British Airways officials are meeting to discuss the situation"

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