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Bomb 'hoax' grounds U.S. flight


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Passengers are seen leaving the plane after it returned to Sydney.
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SYDNEY, Australia (CNN) -- A United Airlines flight carrying 246 passengers to Los Angeles was forced to return to Sydney after a bomb threat police later described as a hoax was found written on an air sickness bag.

Tuesday's hoax came just days after a purported al Qaeda-linked group threatened bloodshed on Australian soil if the government did not withdraw its almost 900 troops from Iraq.

U.S. Transportation Security Administration spokeswoman Amy Von Walter said someone found an air sickness bag with some writing on it.

"They couldn't determine whether it said 'Bomb' or 'Bob,'" she explained.

A statement from United was less specific.

"An object was found onboard which raised security concerns. The flight crew chose to return to Sydney to investigate the matter out of an abundance of concern for our passengers' safety," said United spokeswoman Jenna Obluck.

Australia's busiest airport was temporarily shut down and police closed all roads leading to the airport after the pilot of UAL Flight 840 turned around 90 minutes into the flight.

After dumping fuel and landing on a runway flanked by firefighting trucks and ambulances, police escorted passengers off the plane, which also had 18 crew on board, and interviewed them in the terminal. All were later released.

"We have been carrying out our investigations since the plane landed and I'm quite satisfied that it is a hoax," police commander Peter O'Brien told The Associated Press.

Prime Minister John Howard said he believed the pilot acted correctly.

"I've been fully briefed on what's happened and I totally support the decision taken by the pilot," Howard said.

"It was the right thing to do in the circumstances."

An Australian official said passengers would leave for Los Angeles on Wednesday morning (Tuesday evening EDT).

Australians are on edge after the Europe-based terror group linked to al Qaeda threatened Australians at the weekend.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said the country was taking the threat seriously and would "not bow to terror."

The Tawhid Islamic group, in a statement posted on an Islamic extremist Web site, said that if Australian military forces did not leave Iraq, "we will shake the earth under your feet as we did in Indonesia." (Full story)

In October 2002, two bomb attacks on nightclubs in Bali killed 202 people -- 88 of them Australians.

The group said the battle would be taken to Australia, saying "our arms are long and capable of reaching you."


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