Authorities said the international flight directive wasn’t prompted by a specific threat.

WASHINGTON – Amid signs that terrorists remain intent on hijacking airliners, the Bush administration issued an emergency order Monday requiring foreign governments to place armed marshals aboard international flights identified by U.S. authorities.

A week after raising the terror alert to its second-highest level, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said the nation will remain at high risk of terrorist attack through New Year’s and perhaps beyond. While urging citizens to remain vigilant, he also invited Americans to stick to their holiday plans, “root for your favorite football team and rest assured that the full force of Homeland Security all across this nation is at work to keep you safe.”

Federal authorities said the international flight directive, which took effect immediately, wasn’t prompted by a specific threat. Instead, they cited the continuing interest by al-Qaida and its associates on commandeering planes and using them as weapons against U.S. targets.

The new requirement calls for the placement of armed law enforcement personnel aboard passenger or cargo flights identified as of possible concern by U.S. or foreign intelligence agencies. Though Ridge declined to discuss the number of international flights that could be affected, the emergency directive likely will apply to only a fraction of the hundreds of flights that fly daily into, out of or over the United States.

“Whether the percentage is large or small depends on the information that we have about the flights or passengers or anything else related to it,” Ridge told a news conference.

The British government announced Sunday that it has tightened security for trans-Atlantic flights and said it may place armed sky marshals aboard some planes. That decision prompted concern from the British Airline Pilots Association, which said flight crews should have the right to decline duty aboard planes with guns.

Last week, Australia said armed marshals would guard some Qantas flights between Australia and Singapore and may be put on flights to the United States.

Ridge expressed confidence that foreign governments would accede to the U.S. demand for armed marshals aboard designated flights. Should any foreign carriers refuse, he noted that the United States could forbid entry into its airspace. “Ultimately, a denial of access is the leverage that you have,” he said.

But he and other administration officials suggested foreign governments understand the U.S. edict.

“I think there’s a recognition worldwide that we live in dangerous times, there are serious threats out there, and that it is incumbent upon all of us to do what we can to protect our citizens and our way of life from these threats,” State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said, adding that he knew of no governments that have complained about the directive.

In Mexico, officials said the Federal Preventative Police has special units that could serve as air marshals if necessary.

Interior Minister Santiago Creel, who is in charge of national security, said the officers would be used only in very specific circumstances.

“It necessarily has to be in very isolated, very specific cases and for that we require collaboration with the intelligence agencies of our friendly nations,” he said Monday.

“If we see some irregular situation in a flight that could pose some kind of a risk, then we would call on our personnel to be attentive,” he added.

Mexico’s two major airlines, Mexicana and Aeromexico, had no immediate comment. Both have regular flights to U.S. cities like San Francisco, Dallas, New York, Chicago and elsewhere.

The union that represents flight attendants and pilots in Mexico said it was opposed to having armed officers on board, arguing that the presence of the weapons themselves pose immediate danger to passengers and crew.

At the request of U.S. officials last week, six Air France flights between Paris and Los Angeles were canceled amid terrorism concerns.

Monday’s directive marks the latest tightening in aviation security for the United States, which has deployed thousands of air marshals since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

The International Air Transport Association, which represents carriers that account for 98 percent of all international traffic, said the U.S. directive is likely to be used only sparingly. Homeland Security officials assured the association that the request for marshals would be made only as “a specific response to a specific threat,” said David O’Connor, IATA’s U.S. director.

While the association hasn’t taken an official position pending a better understanding of the mandate’s cost to members, O’Connor said carriers understand the need for increased security.

“Airlines share the concern and don’t want any terrorist attack on any airline, anywhere,” he said.

Aviation security consultant Douglas Laird said the United States may run into uneasiness in other quarters about having armed law enforcement personnel aboard planes. “Most aviation organizations worldwide abhor putting firearms on aircraft,” said Laird, a former Northwest Airlines security director.

Still, Laird said the U.S. program may act as “a deterrent in the short term.”

David McIntyre, a homeland security expert on leave from Texas A&M, welcomed Ridge’s announcement as “a wonderful development.”

“Not all of the other airlines have taken security as seriously as the U.S. has,” McIntyre said. “The idea of the administration pressuring them on it and saying “This is a requirement you are going to do if you want to fly in our airspace’ is a wonderful idea.”

While acknowledging the U.S. order may prove a hardship to small countries and small carriers, McIntyre said: “It’s not our fault. That’s the fault of the terrorists.”

(News Assistant Javier Garcia in Mexico City contributed to this report.)

(c) 2003, The Dallas Morning News.

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Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.


ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Tom Ridge

AP-NY-12-29-03 2008EST

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