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Friday, September 28, 2001

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11 hijackers may have stayed in U.K.

By Hasan Suroor

LONDON, SEPT.27.The British ``connection'' with the terrorist attacks in America is turning out to be deeper than previously believed with reports indicating that as many as 11 of the hijackers involved in the atrocities had stayed in Britain. They were believed to have left Britain between January and June this year, before embarking on the final leg of their suicidal mission.

The Home Secretary, Mr. David Blunkett, admitted that they had not been watched but denied that it was an intelligence failure. Asked in a BBC interview if the men had been under watch, he said: ``As far as I am aware they were not. That doesn't mean to say that there hadn't been some intelligence about them. Some of them will have passed through, some will have stayed on. What we do know now is that having identified these people...we can track not only their movement but those who associated with them. That is the crucial issue,'' he said. He did not rule out the possibility of the contacts of these terrorists still being in the country.

The FBI has asked Scotland Yard to investigate who sheltered and funded them, expecting the trail to lead to Osama bin Laden's Al- Qaeda network. The discovery has caused anxiety in view of the police warning that Britain could be the next target of terrorist attacks. ``Officials hope that the inquiries in Britain will disclose the true identities of the suicide team. Some are known to have arrived in Britain using false passports and fake identities that were kept for the hijack,'' The Times said. It quoted investigators as saying that all 11 men might have collected funds during their stay in Britain.

Al-Qaeda was one of the terrorist organisations banned by the British Government earlier this year under the new anti- terrorist law. The ban meant that anyone funding their activists could be prosecuted, but reports suggest that many of the banned organisations continue to be active on the sly. Several arrests have been made after the September 11 tragedy amid mounting pressure on the Government to crack down on suspected sympathisers of proscribed outfits.

The ``dirty 11'', it is stated, included those who fought with Muslim rebels in Chechnya, and some are believed to have made ``repeated visits'' to Britain in recent months. Scotland Yard is reported to be examining bank accounts and other leads, including certain addresses, passed on to it by the FBI. Experts fear that a large number of trained extremists might be hiding in Britain as ``sleepers'', waiting for orders for their next ``mission''.

The Government is working on a number of measures, including more stringent immigration checks, more security on planes, increased powers for the police and the introduction of compulsory identity cards, but civil liberties groups have objected to curtailment of individual freedoms.

Meanwhile, the Defence Secretary, Mr. Geoff Hoon has sought to play down fears of a direct threat to Britain from chemical weapons attacks. He called media reports alarmist and stressed that there was no evidence of a ``direct specific threat''.

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