Japan joins U.S, Britain with warning to travelers to Europe; tourists keep calm but alert

By Jamey Keaten, AP
Monday, October 4, 2010

Japan warns about Europe terror; tourists are calm

PARIS — Japan and Sweden joined the U.S. and Britain on Monday in warning citizens about traveling in Europe because of concerns about a terror attack. Pakistani intelligence officials said five German militants were believed killed in an American missile strike close to the Afghan border.

Two officials said the victims were believed to be German citizens in the region for terrorist training. A third said they were believed to be foreigners, but gave no details.

The officials spoke anonymously because their agency does not permit operatives to be named in the media.

The travel advisories from Tokyo and Stockholm came as European authorities sought to calibrate their messages on counterterrorism efforts, hoping to raise public awareness about the threat but without sowing panic.

The warnings could plant the seed for possible damage to Europe’s lucrative tourism business at a time when the continent’s economy has been coping with recession — though many tourists took the warnings in stride.

The U.S. State Department alert Sunday advised the hundreds of thousands of American citizens living or traveling in Europe to take more precautions about their personal security. The Japanese alert was similar.

Britain’s Foreign Office warned travelers to France and Germany that the terror threat there was high. Sweden’s Foreign Ministry did not single out any particular countries in its message.

One trigger for the heightened concern came from French authorities last month. A parade of officials said France was facing its highest terror alert level in years, pointing to increased violence and threats by al-Qaida’s North African branch.

The public concerns intensified last week after a Pakistani intelligence official said eight Germans and two British brothers were at the heart of an al-Qaida-linked terror plot against European cities.

Security officials say terrorists may be plotting attacks in Europe with assault weapons on public places, similar to the deadly 2008 shooting spree in Mumbai, India. European officials have provided no details about specific targets.

Authorities in Europe sought to play down any talk of a rift in approach.

“The Americans have got to make their own announcements, that’s a matter for them. We work very closely with them on these issues, and have the same policy — which is to update travelers and give them advice as and when we think it’s appropriate,” Steve Field, spokesman for Prime Minister David Cameron, told reporters in London.

German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said his country has no concrete evidence of an imminent attack and that security forces are vigilant due to an ongoing “high abstract danger” of the terror threat.

Speaking in Berlin, de Maiziere insisted that German authorities have been aware since early 2009 of possible targets in the capital mentioned in U.S. media reports over the weekend.

“There is no reason to be alarmist at this time,” de Maiziere said.

Britain, France and Germany have not raised their terror threat levels in recent weeks — in part because they are already high. In France, for example, the next notch up would give authorities the power to enact draconian measures like closing airports and railway stations.

The Swedish intelligence agency SAPO on Friday raised the terror alert from low to elevated, noting a shift in activities among Sweden-based groups that could be plotting attacks against the country.

In Rome, speaking on state-run RAI TV, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said the U.S. alarm about the potential for a terror attack in Europe was “realistic” for Italy because it has troops in Afghanistan. Frattini said there were no specific Italian targets.

In Washington, the FBI and the U.S. Homeland Security Department said they have no indication that terrorists are targeting the United States or its citizens as part of a new threat against Europe.

An intelligence bulletin obtained Monday by The Associated Press said the U.S. government organizations said al-Qaida continues to want to attack the United States, but that there was nothing specific, imminent or related to the European plots.

Former U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff urged Americans in Europe to take commonsense precautions.

“Don’t walk around with the American flag on your back,” Chertoff told ABC’s “Good Morning America.” ”(Consider) where would you take shelter if something happened.”

In Britain, officials noted that the United States has taken a far more cautious line about terrorism.

British intelligence prefers to keep targets under surveillance as they plan attacks, often waiting until the final stages of a plot to intervene — hoping to gather evidence to be used in prosecutions, and to gain as much information as possible about plotters’ contacts.

“That cuts significantly too close to the bone for the United States, they are not happy to let plots run for too long. The U.K. will allow a plot to run to quite a late stage,” said Tobias Feakin, director of national security at London’s Royal United Services Institute, a military think tank.

Business travelers and tourists arriving Monday at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport from the United States said they were aware of the warnings but weren’t changing their plans.

“I’m very happy to be here in France. I think we’re very safe, and I trust the French government to keep us safe,” said James O’Connell, a 59-year-old from Pittsburgh, arriving in Paris for a 7-day vacation.

Germans — authorities and citizens alike — were not convinced of the need for concern.

Marian Sutholt, 25, of Berlin said: “If you worry all the time, you actually live up exactly to what the terrorists want.”

In Paris, the New York Knicks practiced as scheduled Monday ahead of the next match of their European preseason tour.

“We know where to go and the places to visit and again, you have to cherish the moment because it’s not often you get a chance to play an NBA game in Paris,” star forward Amare Stoudemire said.

Shahzad reported from Islamabad. Associated Press writers Juergen Baetz in Berlin, Shino Yuasa in Tokyo, Louise Nordstrom in Sweden, Nicole Winfield in Rome, David Stringer and Paisley Dodds in London, Eileen Sullivan in Washington and AP Television News reporters Nicolas Garriga in Paris and Dorothee Thiesing in Berlin contributed to this report.

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