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UK approves armed air marshals

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LONDON, England -- The British government has given the go-ahead for armed air marshals on British passenger planes.

The announcement came a day after a senior UK government official warned there was a "high probability" that international terrorists would sooner or later launch an attack on the UK -- with aviation the most likely target.

Transport Secretary Alistair Darling said on Thursday the capability now existed "to place covert, specially-trained armed police officers aboard UK civil aircraft."

The Israeli airline El-Al, considered to have the world's strictest security, has carried armed marshals on all its flights for more than 30 years. German airline Lufthansa also uses them.

Air marshals have been a feature of domestic Australian flights for nearly a year, and Australia and Singapore have agreed to allow undercover armed guards on flights between the two countries.

The U.S. started putting guards on flights in the 1970s to thwart hijackings to Cuba, and again in 1985 after TWA Flight 847 was hijacked.

Mervyn Granshaw, chairman of the British Airline Pilots Association, said the group backed strong security measures but believed the emphasis should be on preventing potential terrorists from boarding planes.

"We have difficulties with the idea of having lethal weapons on board airliners," he told The Associated Press.

British Airways and Virgin Atlantic both said they were concerned about guns aboard planes.

"However we are working closely with the government to make sure these plans do not jeopardize on-board safety and to ensure that the correct procedures are in place should deployment be necessary," BA said in a statement.

Low-velocity ammunition

Darling stressed although the threat to UK aviation remained "a real one", the new measure had not been developed, nor had been announced, "in response to any new or or specific intelligence."

The Department for Transport, which is responsible for overseeing the national aviation programme, would not say what flights the marshals would operate on or what arms they would carry.

Weapons carried by marshals elsewhere are equipped with low-velocity ammunition, designed to be powerful enough to kill or seriously wound without ripping through the fuselage.

The department said the trained officers would fly on both international and domestic UK flights.

"We are not discussing details because we don't want to give terrorists a chance to guess our intentions," a department spokesman told the UK Press Association.

"If you're a passenger on a flight from now on, you can assume that an armed officer could be on board."

European nations have historically been less enthusiastic about the idea of sky marshals, arguing that weapons given to the marshals could be used against them or against passengers.

Airlines such as Virgin and British Airways have installed security measures such as reinforced or bullet-proof cockpit doors and CCTV-style cameras on their aircraft.

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