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Monday, 17 February, 2003, 16:12 GMT
Blair authorised terror alert troops
Soldiers patrol Heathrow
Armoured vehicles have joined police on patrol
The prime minister gave his personal authorisation for soldiers to be drafted in to boost security at Heathrow airport and other sites in London, says Downing Street.

A total of 450 troops have joined 1,000 extra police officers in patrolling the airport as part of a tightening of security at sites across the capital.

The heightened security is linked to intelligence concerns that al-Qaeda may try to use surface-to-air missiles in the UK or US this week.

I think probably the authorities feel that they should build up emotions - what I call the `war spirit'

Dr Zaki Badawi
Muslim College
It is compounded by US security chiefs warning of possible terrorist attacks in the US and Middle East towards the end of the week, including the use of poisons, chemicals and a device to spread radioactivity

The prime minister's spokesman said action to deploy troops at Heathrow would not have been taken unless it was thought to be necessary.

The move was "an ongoing operation in relation to a specific threat", the spokesman said.

"The threat is real and the response to it will go up and down accordingly," he added.

"This is not an exact science. There is no rulebook on how to deal with these things.

"The guiding principle is to protect the security of the people of this country consistent with not wanting to do the terrorists' job for them."

Missile threat

The BBC's security correspondent Frank Gardner said Western intelligence had "woken up" to the possibility that al-Qaeda or people linked to al-Qaeda could try to use surface-to-air missiles to bring down an aircraft.

It follows an attempted attack in Kenya last November and another similar incident in Saudi Arabia last June.

Scimitars

Mr Gardner said: "What's worrying intelligence services is if they can get their hands on something which is powerful and modern enough they could launch it from the perimeter fence.

"I have spoken to people who are quite close to or quite familiar with al-Qaeda and they have told me that in the last 48 hours there has been a lot of internet chatter among supporters talking about quite possibly an attack this week being launched by al-Qaeda somewhere in the West."

The possibility of an attack is also being linked to the end of the Muslim religious festival of Eid, which runs from Wednesday to Saturday.

Scotland Yard said the festival "may erroneously be used by al-Qaeda and associated networks to mount attacks".

A spokesman said the heightened security was in line with action being taken in other countries.

Criticism

But Muslim groups have criticised the police for making a link between the religious festival and a potential terror threat.

Troops are guarding the airport's perimeters, manning checkpoints and providing security in armoured vehicles within Heathrow.

They are also patrolling the M25, according to BBC home affairs correspondent Daniel Sandford.

Heathrow Airport
Passenger safety is paramount says Heathrow
He said an operation on this level was "absolutely unprecedented at Heathrow".

He added there must be a "reasonably specific threat", although the UK was not on the highest state of alert.

Troops from the First Battalion Grenadier Guards and the Household Cavalry Regiment began their patrols on Tuesday.

A Ministry of Defence spokesman told BBC News Online the soldiers would be on guard for as long as the police needed their support.

The army was last drafted in at Heathrow in 1994 when the IRA mounted an attempted mortar attack.

The prime minister's official spokesman said the public recognised the threat from international terrorism was real and the government had to respond accordingly.

Mick Temple, managing director at Heathrow Airport, said safety and security was its number one priority as he called on passengers to be vigilant and patient.

A BAA spokeswoman said they had not being told of heightened security at other airports.

Last week the US Government put the country on the second-highest level of security alert because of an increased risk of terror attacks on American targets at home and abroad.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Margaret Gilmore at Heathrow
"The UK is a prime target"
Sir John Stephens, Metropolitan Police Commissioner
"The need for doing this is there"
The BBC's Frank Gardner
"The government says it is reacting to a specific threat"

Click here to go to BBC London Online

In DepthIN DEPTH
Armed police officerTerror alert
How the threat of terrorism is affecting the UK
See also:

07 Feb 03 | Americas
08 Nov 02 | Politics
07 Jan 03 | Politics
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