A major security operation was continuing at British airports and other key sites today, as anti-terrorist police quizzed a passenger over a live grenade found in luggage at Gatwick airport.
The grenade was found in the baggage of a 37-year-old man travelling with a Venezuelan passport after he touched down on British Airways flight BA 2048 from Bogota in Colombia at 1.23pm yesterday.
Scotland Yard and Customs refused to discuss reports the man was of Bangladeshi origin.
Passengers were immediately evacuated from the airport’s North Terminal and outbound flights were suspended. The terminal remained closed for several hours until it was reopened at 7.45pm last night.
The man, who was arrested for suspected terrorist offences, was moved to London where he was being questioned by Scotland Yard anti-terrorist police.
As a combined Army and police security operation continued at Heathrow airport two men were arrested there under the Terrorism Act 2000 yesterday.
Anti-terrorist police were today questioning the men, believed to have been stopped in a car during routine checks as part of the heightened alert around Heathrow, at a west London police station.
However, the incident is not believed to be connected to the mass security operation at the airport and was thought to be a precautionary measure.
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Defence confirmed that a military aircraft has been patrolling the skies above London as part of the latest operation.
The RAF Nimrod performed a supporting role to troops and police on Wednesday as they continued to guard Heathrow and other key sites.
Around 1,700 extra police officers were at Heathrow and other key London locations and security was also beefed up at Manchester airport, including spot checks by armed officers.
The BBC reported that the Heathrow security operation had been sparked by MI5 intelligence of a threat to shoot down a plane.
Surface-to-air missiles that went missing 20 years ago in Afghanistan were thought to be part of the threat, the BBC said.
The group suspected of the plot was not named in the reports.
At Stansted Airport, the access road was being closed to the public from this morning due to increased security measures.
Police and airport authorities said it was not because of a specific threat.
Yesterday’s incidents prompted Home Secretary David Blunkett to stress that the current terrorist threat was real and that the security services were “on the ball”.
Mr Blunkett rejected accusations that Ministers were sending “confused and conflicting” signals over the terrorist threat, particularly the alert at Heathrow.
He told the House of Commons Britain faced a “real and serious” threat from al-Qaida.
But he refused to reveal any more details, claiming it would not be responsible “to provide a running commentary” on the alert.
Shadow home secretary Oliver Letwin said he backed the actions of the Government but called for a single minister to be made responsible for security who could speak “with one clear and unwavering voice”.
He told MPs: “It is far better to set the precedent of measured and comprehensive statements in the House than to allow a running public commentary to be provided by confused and conflicting signals given by other ministers on the airwaves.”
That was a reference to remarks by Labour party chairman John Reid who said on Wednesday that the threat was of the nature of September 11, and then said his comments had been taken out of context.
Meetings of Cobra, the Cabinet Office’s civil contingencies committee, have been called and police warned there could be more operations involving the Army.