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Britain rules out Heathrow closure

Britain has placed 450 troops at London's Heathrow Airport
Britain has placed 450 troops at London's Heathrow Airport

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LONDON (CNN) -- British officials ruled out closing London Heathrow -- Europe's busiest airport -- in response to reports of a terrorist threat, because such a move would have been a victory for terrorists, the UK home secretary says.

"We didn't consider closing Heathrow Airport because those who are threatening us would have been the victors," David Blunkett said.

"The economy of our country, international trade and the free transport of people would have all been completely disrupted. ... This would have been a catastrophic thing to have done."

He urged the public to be on the lookout for any suspicious behaviour, saying: "We hope we can get through the next few days without any incident."

On Tuesday, the government launched a massive military and police operation that has seen 450 troops deployed at the airport. Armoured cars and tanks have been stationed at the airport's main entrance, and military trucks have been positioned outside key buildings.

Small teams of soldiers and police officers, all armed with rifles, were walking side by side, patrolling airport terminals and the main entrances to the airport parking lots.

Scotland Yard has refused to reveal the substance of the threat, but terror experts said it pointed to a possible missile attack on a plane similar to the one carried out by al Qaeda terrorists in Kenya last year. In that attacks, two shoulder-fired missiles were fired at an Israeli airliner but missed.

The Metropolitan Police has said it was possible al Qaeda would use the end of the Muslim Eid al-Adha holiday to mount attacks, and that the heightened security "relates to a potential threat to the capital."

"From time to time, it is necessary to raise levels of security activity. We think it is prudent to do so now," the police said.

Speaking in parliament, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said: "Terrorist threats are not happening just in this country, but in every European country and every country across the globe. As a result of that, we do sometimes have to take measures we would rather not take in order to give us the security we need."

Meanwhile, Labour Party chairman John Reid said the nature of the threat against London was similar to the September 11, 2001, attacks, although he later said he did not mean that the threat at Heathrow was of that scale.

"This is about a threat of the nature that massacred thousands of people in New York," Reid said during a visit to Manchester, in response to a question about the increased security in London.

"I am not even going to take seriously those people who suggest this is part of some sort of game," he said.

But later he said his comments had been misinterpreted, and that he was referring to the overall threat posed by terrorism, not a specific threat to Britain.

"I was asked, what was my response to those people who said that what was going on at Heathrow and elsewhere was all part of a public relations exercise, a spin," Reid told the BBC.

The Heathrow troops are part of a larger security operation in London
The Heathrow troops are part of a larger security operation in London

"And I said that I didn't think that was even worthy of an answer -- that we were dealing with a huge problem, the nature of the phenomenon of international terrorism which gave us things like the Twin Towers in New York.

"And the suggestion that any government would use that sort of subject and phenomenon for spin and public relations I thought was beneath contempt," Reid said.

He said his comparison to September 11 was "misinterpreted, and I can understand why, by someone thinking that I had said that the scale of the threat at Heathrow was the same as the scale of the threat in New York. That was not said, it was not meant."

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