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Friday, 21 December, 2001, 20:02 GMT
Anti-terror squad searches ship
Anti-terror officers stopped the cargo ship at 0800GMT
Anti-terrorist police are continuing their search of a cargo ship from Mauritius which they intercepted in the English Channel on Friday morning.

The Metropolitan Police's Anti-Terrorist Branch, in a joint security operation with the Royal Navy and Customs, said it was acting on "a credible tip-off" that terrorist material was on board.

She was making a pretty standard voyage but then we are told that there are all these places that are supposedly linked with al-Qaeda

Great Eastern Shipping Company

An initial search of the vessel uncovered nothing, and it has now been taken to Sandown Bay off the Isle of Wight, for a second search which could last several days.

The BBC's Margaret Gilmore said the police were looking for "terrorist paraphernalia which was Bin Laden-related" but they would not be more specific and stressed there was no intelligence to suggest anthrax was involved.

Click here to see cargo ship's route

The MV Nisha, which is owned by the Bombay-based Great Eastern Shipping Company, was heading for a sugar refinery in east London when it was intercepted in international waters off the Sussex coast.

The 500ft ship was boarded by the Royal Navy and Anti-Terrorist Branch officers at about 0800GMT.

A Scotland Yard spokesman later said: "A full security search of the ship has been completed and no noxious or dangerous substances have been found aboard the vessel.

"At this stage it is not possible to say how long officers will remain aboard the ship."

During a press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister Tony Blair said the interception demonstrated the "top-level vigilance" of the security services over the coming weeks.

He said: "Even if the risk is only a potential risk, we will not hesitate to take any action that we think necessary in order to investigate any potential threat."

'Crew are co-operative'

The ship had sailed from Mauritius, and there were reports it had stopped in Djibouti, next to Somalia, which has been linked with Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda terror network.
HMS Sutherland
HMS Sutherland was involved in Friday's operation

But chairman of the Great Eastern Shipping Company, Sudhir Muliji, said the stopover in Djibouti had been made before the current journey and was to drop off American grain as part of a food aid shipment.

He said the ship then went on to Mauritius to pick up the sugar and transport it to Britain.

"She was making a pretty standard voyage but then we are told that there are all these places that are supposedly linked with al-Qaeda," he said.

"Obviously there must have been some information that went to Scotland Yard and they decided to make double sure that there was nothing bad on board, which I think we must be very grateful for."

Sugar cargo

The MV Nisha had been chartered by the Mauritius Sugar Syndicate and was carrying 26,000 tonnes of its raw sugar.

The vessel was heading for the Tate & Lyle sugar refinery at Silvertown, and was due to arrive at 0400GMT on Saturday.

Tate & Lyle's director of corporate communications, Chris Fox, said the company was co-operating fully with the police.

He said: "There was a lot of secrecy around it all so we only heard about it this afternoon."

HMS Sutherland was involved in the operation, the Ministry of Defence said.

Dramatic TV film of the interception of the MV Nisha showed the Royal Navy frigate HMS Sutherland trailing the ship by a few 100 yards.

Four rigid-inflatable boats then went after the merchant vessel, zipping across the waves until they pulled level.



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 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Nick Hawton
"The ship was on its way to London"
The BBC's Gavin Hewitt
"The Prime Minister is not prepared to take any risks"
The BBC's Margaret Gilmore
"There is still an inch by inch search to do"
See also:

20 Dec 01 | UK Politics
UK hails anti-terror progress
14 Dec 01 | UK Politics
Anti-terror Act at-a-glance
14 Dec 01 | UK Politics
Terror laws face court threat
13 Dec 01 | England
Britain on Christmas terror alert
21 Dec 01 | UK
Terror suspect refused bail
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