Wednesday 26 July 2017

UK to follow Trump with laptop ban on Middle East flights

Kim Sengupta, Joe Watts

Britain has banned large electronic devices on flights from a number of Middle Eastern countries, less than 24 hours after the US said it made a similar decision based on intelligence suggesting terror groups could blow up commercial airliners with explosives hidden in consumer items.

A government spokesperson said the UK arrangements were agreed after Theresa May met with aviation security experts on Tuesday morning, and would impact major airlines providing flights from the affected countries, including British Airways, EasyJet and Thomas Cook.

Downing Street said officials have been "in close touch" with their US counterparts during the decision to implement the ban.

The decision follows the receipt of specific intelligence reports, according to security sources.

And while the countries affected all have Muslim-majority populations, sources stressed that the rule change was entirely intelligence-led.

They said the rationale behind the changes should not be confused with the anti-immigrant sentiments widely thought to have driven highly controversial policies Donald Trump is seeking to introduce in America, described collectively as a “Muslim ban”.

The US electronics measure, announced late on Monday, affected nine airlines from countries including Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE and Jordan. The airlines involved were Royal Jordanian, Egypt Air, Turkish Airlines, Saudi Arabian Airlines, Kuwait Airways, Royal Air Maroc, Qatar Airways, Emirates and Etihad Airways. No US carriers have to follow the new rules.

Under the UK's measure, all direct flights from six countries - Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia - will be affected.

A Government spokesperson explained that under the new arrangements, passengers boarding flights to the UK from the countries will not be allowed to take any phones, laptops or tablets larger than a "normal sized mobile or smart phone" into the cabin of the plane.

Any such devices will need to be placed into hold luggage and checked-in before going through central security. Normal cabin baggage restrictions will continue to apply.

Devices measuring more than 16cm in length, 9.3cm in width, or 1.5cm depth will be banned from the cabin.

The spokesperson said the measure was effective immediately, but would not give details as to why the decision had been taken now.

Downing Street said all airlines affected were "being informed of the new requirements".

The American decision, and the impending British one, mean that some travellers from some of the busiest international transport hubs, including Dubai and Istanbul, will be caught up in the security net.

The move is also likely to further antagonise the government of Turkey's President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose relations with western European countries have become increasingly acrimonious. Turkey has already condemned the American action as unfair and demanded that it should be reversed.

Security officials refused to discuss whether any specific terrorist plot had been detected. There was, however, an attempt to bring down an airliner in Somalia by the Islamist al-Shabaab group using a laptop bomb and a number of airports now require that passengers switch on laptops they are carrying during security checks.

However, on the launch of the US restrictions, which mean large electronic devices will only be allowed on board if checked in the hold, the Department of Homeland Security said extremists were seeking "innovative methods" to bring down passenger planes.

It added in a statement: "“Evaluated intelligence indicates that terrorist groups continue to target commercial aviation, to include smuggling explosive devices in various consumer items.”

The British government spokesperson said: "The safety and security of the travelling public is our highest priority.That is why we keep our aviation security under constant review and put in place measures we believe are necessary, effective and proportionate.

"The Prime Minister has chaired a number of meetings on aviation security over the last few weeks, including this morning, where it was agreed that new aviation security measures on all inbound direct flights to the UK from the following countries will be introduced."

Chris Grayling, the Secretary of State for Transport, said: "We understand the frustration that these measures may cause and we are working with the aviation industry to minimise any impact.

"Our top priority will always be to maintain the safety of British nationals. These new measures apply to flights into the UK and we are not currently advising against flying to and from those countries. Those with imminent travel plans should contact their airline for further information."

Independent News Service

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