British Court Orders 3 Tied to Plot Held
By WARREN HOGE
ONDON, Nov. 18 — Three men charged under terrorism laws were remanded in custody for four weeks by a London court today in connection with a reported plan for a rush-hour attack on commuters in the city's subway system.
The government played down accounts in Sunday newspapers that there was a plot that involved releasing cyanide gas on crowded trains, But The Press Association, Britain's domestic news agency, citing police sources, confirmed that the London Underground mass transit network was thought to be the suspects' intended target.
The arrests come at a time when Britons are being warned to be increasingly vigilant because of intelligence indicating that Al Qaeda is focusing on a strike on their country. Britain was one of the American allies threatened by name in a tape recording thought to be made by Osama bin Laden that was broadcast last week by Al Jazeera, the Arabic satellite television network.
The men arrested, unemployed North Africans of no fixed addresses, are being held under a section of Britain's two-year-old antiterrorism law, which covers possessing articles for the preparation, instigation and commission of terrorist acts. The police identified them as Rabah Chekat-Bais, 21; Rabah Kadris, in his mid-30's, and Karim Kadouri, 33.
The Sunday Times of London reported that the three were among six men arrested eight days ago in a raid on several North London addresses by Scotland Yard's antiterrorism branch. Three were released without charge, and three were kept in custody and ordered to appear today in the Bow Street Magistrate's Court.
The Sunday Times reported that no chemical or bomb-making equipment was recovered but speculated that the plan had been to bring the ingredients of a gas bomb into the country. "So that suggests that the equipment or the materials may still be out there," Nicholas Rufford, the paper's assistant editor, said on Sunday.
John Prescott, the deputy prime minister, dismissed that idea as a product of "the fertile imagination of the press." He told the BBC, "It doesn't appear to be that there is any evidence whatsoever there was going to be a gas attack or indeed use of bombs regarding the three people who have been arrested."
Prime Minister Tony Blair placed Britain on heightened watch last Monday in a speech in which he said that "barely a day goes by without some new piece of intelligence coming via our security services about a threat to U. K. interests." He coupled his call for vigilance with a word of caution that overreacting by shutting down services or drastically altering behavior would fulfill the terrorists' goal of trying to convulse daily life.
The prime minister's open warning sought to reverse the damage done to national confidence by a bungled terrorist alert from the Home Office days before, which said, "Maybe they will try to develop a so-called dirty bomb or some kind of poison gas; maybe they will try to use boats or trains, rather than planes."
The release was withdrawn the same day and replaced with a more general alert, but the government was widely criticized for unnecessarily spreading anxiety.
The Home Office denied on Sunday that the original document referred to the plot uncovered by the three arrests. "If the government thought it necessary to give the public specific warnings about any venue — including the Underground — we would not hesitate to do so," said a spokesman for the Home Office.
On Friday the chief government medical official, Liam Donaldson, said Britain was undertaking an education campaign using warning posters, mock-emergency drills and other devices to advise the public on how to respond in the event of a biological or chemical attack.
The London Underground carries 3.3 million passengers a day, and much of the system is watched over by surveillance cameras installed in the years when the Irish Republican Army was conducting a bombing campaign on the British mainland.
"Over the past 30 years, we have been exposed, like the rest of London, to the threats of terrorism," a spokeswoman said. She appealed to passengers to be vigilant and to call officials' attention to anything they saw that seemed suspicious.
Bob Crow, general secretary of the train drivers' union, complained about not having been told of the supposed plot but insisted that the system, known to Londoners as the Tube, was secure.
"London Underground on a day-to-day basis is still a safe operation to use, and we will not be telling our members not to use the Tube on a normal day because these attacks could have taken place at a museum or football ground or anything of that nature," he said.
A number of Underground stations were closed for two days last week, and one of the system's main lines was shut down entirely, because of a firefighters' strike that drivers contended made the system too unsafe for them to report for work. The firefighters are threatening an eight-day walkout for Friday.
Subways have been the targets of attackers before, with the most famous case being the nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway by the Aum Shinrikyo cult in 1995, which killed 12 people and injured 5,000.
In Paris last month two Algerians, Boualem Bensaid, 34, and Smain Ali Belkacem, 34, were sentenced to life in prison for a series of bombings in the Metro and on regional trains, also in 1995, that killed eight people and wounded more than 200. A third suspect, Rachid Ramda, 33, is in detention in London, awaiting the outcome of legal action blocking his extradition to France.