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French Flights to US Cancelled Due to FBI Mistake, France Says
Published on Friday, January 2, 2004 by Agence France Presse
French Flights to US Cancelled Due to FBI Mistake, France Says
 

The French government cancelled six Air France flights between Paris and Los Angeles last month after US investigators wrongly identified six passengers as potential terrorists, the interior ministry said.

A ministry spokesman said the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had based its information on passenger lists containing names similar to those of suspected al-Qaeda operatives who appear on US watch lists.

"A check was carried out in each case and in each case it turned out to be negative," a ministry spokesman told AFP.

"The FBI worked with family names and some family names sound alike," the spokesman said. He noted that some of the names had been transliterated from Arabic, which uses a different alphabet from French and English.

"The difficulty is compounded when you have no first name or date of birth," he said.

The French government agreed after 48 hours of talks with US officials to cancel three Air France flights from Paris to Los Angeles as well as the three return legs operated by the flag carrier on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

The FBI said its information showed that Al-Qaeda activists planned to hijack an Air France plane and crash it on US soil in a suicide terror strike similar to those carried out on September 11, 2001.

But the Wall Street Journal reported Friday that one of the Air France passengers singled out by the FBI was a child whose name happened to be the same as a wanted Islamic extremist from Tunisia.

The others on the list were an elderly Chinese lady who had at one time run a restaurant in Paris, an insurance salesman from Wales and three French nationals, the paper said.

The cancellations came amid heightened fears of a terror attack over the Christmas period. The United States on December 21 stepped up its national security alert to Code Orange, which warns of a "high risk of terrorist attacks."

On Thursday, British Airways cancelled one of its three daily passenger flights from London's Heathrow Airport to Dulles International Airport outside Washington. BA said it was still deciding whether to operate Friday's flight.

And Aeromexico's daily flight from Mexico City to Los Angeles was cancelled for a second day in a row because of security concerns, the US embassy in Mexico City said late Thursday in a statement.

Washington has also called for armed sky marshals to be deployed on foreign flights thought to be at risk.

But a French police spokesman said that "not the slightest physical or personal evidence" was uncovered as a result of the FBI's information about the cancelled Air France flights between Paris and Los Angeles.

He noted that the anti-terrorism unit at the public prosecutor's office in Paris had seen no need to open an investigation into the matter.

Air France resumed its flights to Los Angeles on December 26.

The Washington Post reported that two Air France flights were escorted by US Air Force F-16 fighter jets when they landed at Los Angeles on Tuesday and Wednesday -- a report indirectly confirmed Friday by France's junior transport minister Dominique Bussereau.

"Currently, the air bases of the countries concerned are on a high state of alert, and it's not unthinkable for civilian aircraft to be followed at a distance by military jets," Bussereau told private radio Europe 1.

"That has been the case in the United States," the minister added.

Asked to confirm the Post report, he said: "US authorities don't communicate this kind of information to us, but if the Washington Post, which is a serious newspaper, says so, we have every reason to believe it's accurate."

Copyright 2004 AFP

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