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Ireland's airports in suicide bomber alert
Sunday September 23rd 2001
Security experts warn that we cannot defend our airspace as America gears up for war
SERIOUS concerns have been raised that Irish airports could be used to launch suicide air-attacks on London targets, the Sunday Independent has learned.
The fears have been raised by security experts advising a high-powered group of top Army, Garda and Civil Service personnel, established by the Irish Government after the terrorist attacks on the US.
These experts have also revealed that they view Ireland's almost total lack of capability to defend our airspace as a serious liability.
This shocking revelation places a question mark over EU summits or visits of dignitaries to Ireland while the current crisis continues.
The possibility of airliners being hijacked in Irish airports, and flying unchallenged towards British targets less than half-an-hour's flying time away, has been discussed by security chiefs in an ongoing review since the US attacks.
A Government spokesman confirmed that a high-level contact group has met every day since the attacks in the US, "looking at all aspects of security in the light of the US events".
There were other fears yesterday that Ireland itself could become a target of Islamic fundamentalists after the Government made Irish airports and airspace available to the US.
The offer is to be made at a meeting in Washington next week with US Secretary of State Colin Powell by Foreign Affairs Minister Brian Cowen.
Yesterday, the US was pursuing its biggest military mobilisation since the 1991 Gulf War as President Bush prepared to strike after Afghanistan refused to surrender Osama bin Laden, the prime suspect in the attack on America.
President Bush said the US economy had suffered shock waves from the terrorist attacks but remains fundamentally strong as the nation prepares for military action. He was ready to sign an executive order pointing a finger at specific terrorists around the globe.
"We're still the greatest nation on the face of the earth, and no terrorist will ever be able to decide our fate," Mr Bush said in his weekly radio address yesterday.
He met with advisers at the presidential retreat in Camp David, Maryland, this weekend as the Pentagon ordered ships and plans to the Middle East and thousands of reservists stepped back into uniform.
The president will soon sign an executive order naming terrorist organisations and specific terrorists around the world and freezing their US assets, a senior administration official said.
The US says Saudi-born militant Osama bin Laden is a chief suspect in the attacks that have left more than 6,500 people dead or missing. As he seeks to avoid American capture, the elusive bin Laden has numerous possible hideouts in his training camps scattered throughout Afghanistan.
Secretary of State Colin Powell has said the US has enough evidence to take bin Laden to court and win. But the US has rejected the Taliban's demands to see the proof if they are to hand the terror suspect over.
Instead, General Powell said his country would have no qualms about snatching bin Laden from the mountains in Afghanistan.
"I think we have enough intelligence information as well as legally sufficient evidence to bring him before an American court ... it might mean that we're going to have to go find him rather than have him delivered by the Taliban," he said.
The US has deployed up to 130 warplanes and about 2,000 marines to the Gulf. A naval battle-group led bythe carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt left the US on Wednesday, bound for the Mediterranean.
Also yesterday, 12 British warships and a submarine, the HMS Superb, passed through the Suez Canal in a steady build-up of British forces in the Gulf.
A total of 25 ships are expected to be deployed in the region, in addition to ground troops and warplanes. It is the biggest deployment of Royal Navy ships since the 1982 Falklands War.
Britain has also offered to contribute to a military force the US is assembling for a campaign against terrorists.
Meanwhile, as Ireland reviews its security, it seems certain that amendments will be made to the current White Paper on Defence. Published last February, it states: "There is no particular threat to the State from other externally based subversive groups. While some continental countries fear the actual or potential activities of international terrorist groups, there is no evidence to suggest that any of these groups has reason or desire to undertake attacks against this State."
Yesterday, however, security sources said Ireland's ability to defend its airspace against the new-style terrorist attacks seen in New York was "problematic". Ireland has no capability to intercept a hijacked airliner.
Fine Gael's Foreign Affairs spokesman Jim O'Keeffe said the security situation should be reassessed in the light of the current threat, taking the best advice from our own security people and internationally.
Foreign Affairs Minister Brian Cowen yesterday defended the Government's decision to open Irish airports and airspace to the US. "I think that what we are simply doing is expressing and demonstrating our solidarity. We haven't given a blank cheque no one has asked for a blank cheque," he said.
Also yesterday it was decided that Europe will cover the insurance risk of war and "terrorism" for its airlines after the US attacks. This means that Aer Lingus will take to the skies this week after the Finance Minister Charlie McCreevy and his EU colleagues struck a last-minute deal on special indemnities for beleaguered airlines.
They agreed that the Government can underwrite the massive insurance hikes facing Aer Lingus, Ryanair and the airports but in return must also commit to a freeze on possible State handouts, pending an EU investigation.
Mr McCreevy criticised the insurance companies that slapped the huge premium hikes on the airline industry. "I don't think they've acted fairly, but I see why they had to do it from a business perspective," he said.
In Jerusalem, Palestinian officials said President Yasser Arafat and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres plan to meet on Sunday in an effort to turn the fragile ceasefire into a lasting truce.
The international community has been pressuring Arafat and Peres to hold the long-overdue meeting as soon as possible in order to strengthen the five-day-old ceasefire.
A lasting truce could boost US efforts to forge a global anti-terror alliance after the attacks on New York and Washington.
EU leaders have agreed to send a ministerial mission to Middle Eastern states next week including Syria and Iran to create conditions for a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Yesterday, Afghanistan's ruling Taliban said its forces had shot down an aircraft in the north of the country, but officials issued conflicting statements on whether it was an unmanned US spy plane or a helicopter of the opposition Northern Alliance.
The United Arab Emirates cut ties with the Taliban, giving a diplomatic boost to US efforts to press Afghanistan's rulers to surrender Osama bin Laden.
But Saudi Arabia is resisting a US request to use a new command centre on a Saudi-located military base in any forthcoming air campaign.
However, Nato member Turkey said it had granted a US request to use Turkish airspace and airbases for US transport aircraft.
The US administration is receiving promises of intelligence sharing from China and commitments of strengthened cooperation from Latin America and the Caribbean.
In a further development yesterday, the US asked European governments to tell Iran it was interested in exploring Iran's response to the attacks on New York and Washington.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw becomes the first minister from London to visit Tehran since the 1979 Islamic revolution which set it on collision course with the West.
As scores of students from the Middle East consider returning home because the aerial assaults on the Pentagon and World Trade Centre have inflamed passions against them, it emerged that in recent days, at least five Middle Eastern students have been assaulted on US college campuses while several others have received threats.
In his radio address yesterday, Bush spoke of the wounded economy, which many economists believe is guaranteed to slip into recession.
"Our economy has had a shock. Many workers lost their jobs this week, especially in the airline and hospitality industries, in restaurants and in tourism, as companies struggle to remain afloat. I applaud those companies who are making extra efforts to avoid laying off workers even during difficult times.
"Many Americans have also seen the value of their stocks decline. Yet, for all these challenges, the American economy is fundamentally strong."
DON LAVERY & JEROME REILLY
-- Martin Thompson (firstname.lastname@example.org), September 23, 2001