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Yemen arrests woman; accuses her of sending mail bombs

October 30, 2010 9:16:49 PM PDT
Yemeni authorities on Saturday arrested a woman suspected of sending two mail bombs found on cargo planes and are searching for more suspects believed linked to al-Qaida, Yemeni security officials said.

The officials said the woman was detained as part of the manhunt as authorities search for a number of suspects believed to have used forged documents and ID cards that played a role in the plot that was thwarted Friday.

U.S. investigators have said the mail bombs were headed to two synagogues in Chicago, raising fears of a new al-Qaida campaign against Western targets. The Yemeni officials said the suspects were believed linked to the terror network's faction in Yemen.

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh told reporters in the capital, San'a, that the United States and the United Arab Emirates had provided him with information that helped identify the woman as a suspect. He said security forces had surrounded a house that was believed to be holding the woman.

Two security officials later told The Associated Press the woman had been arrested, although they did not specify where she was detained.

A Yemeni security official said the young woman was a medical student and that her mother also was detained.

One of the officials, who is a member of the country's anti-terrorism unit and is close to the Yemeni team probing the case, said the other suspects had been tied to al-Qaida's faction in Yemen.

According to ABC News, the initial report came late Thursday night and involved two separate packages shipped from Sanaa, Yemen to Chicago. One of the packages was shipped by FedEx, the other by UPS.

SEE PICTURES OF ONE DEVICE

A second package was discovered in Dubai, where white powder explosives were discovered in the ink cartridge of a printer, police said in a statement. The device was rigged to an electric circuit, and a mobile phone chip was hidden inside the printer, the statement said.

Both bombs contained the industrial explosive PETN, the same chemical used in the failed Christmas bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner. Al-Qaida's Yemen branch took responsibility for that attack.

The bombs were rigged to be activated by cell phone and a timer, but investigators have not found either of those devices, said Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., a member of the House Homeland Security Committee who was briefed on the investigation Saturday morning.

No active devices have been found in the United States, officials said. Searches were conducted on UPS planes and trucks in Newark, N.J., New York City and Philadelphia.

Adding to the tension, two F-15 fighter jets escorted Emirates Flight 201 from Dubai to Kennedy Airport on Friday.

The plane, a Boeing 777, landed shortly after 3:30 p.m. Friday.

Passengers walked off the jet on two covered stairways and then onto the tarmac, dragging their luggage behind them. Several police cars surrounded the airliner.

President Barack Obama called the coordinated attacks a "credible terrorist threat."

Obama said both packages had been addressed to Jewish organizations in the Chicago area. MORE FROM WLS IN CHICAGO

A Yemeni security official said investigators there were examining 24 other suspect packages in the capital, San'a. He spoke on condition on anonymity because he was not authorized to release information and refused to provide more details.

Authorities were questioning cargo workers at the airport as well as employees of the local shipping companies contracted to work with FedEx and UPS, the official said.

In Dubai, where one of the two bombs was found in a FedEx shipment from Yemen, police said it contained a powerful explosive and bore the hallmarks of al-Qaida.

The white powder explosives were discovered in the ink cartridge of a computer printer, said a police statement carried by the official state news agency WAM. The device was rigged to an electric circuit, and a mobile phone chip was hidden inside the printer, the statement said.

The police said the bomb was prepared in a "professional manner."

Yemen promised to investigate the plot. The U.S. has FBI, military and intelligence officers stationed in the country to conduct an inquiry. There are only a handful of international shipping locations in the impoverished Arab nation, but U.S. officials worried that record keeping would be sparse and investigators would have to rely more on intelligence sources to identify the would-be bombers.

In San'a, there was no visible security presence Saturday at the UPS and FedEx offices, which are located on the same street.

An employee at the UPS office said they had been instructed not to receive any packages for delivery for the time being. He refused to be identified by name because he said he had been instructed by authorities not to talk to reporters.

No explosives were found on an Emirates Airlines passenger jet that was escorted down the coast to New York by American fighter jets.

"The forensic analysis is under way," Obama's counterterror chief John Brennan said. "Clearly from the initial observation, the initial analysis that was done, the materials that were found in the device that was uncovered was intended to do harm."

While Obama didn't specifically accuse Yemen's al-Qaida branch, Brennan called it the most active al-Qaida franchise and said anyone associated with the group was a subject of concern.

That would include the radical U.S.-born Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who now is in hiding in Yemen. He has been linked in the Christmas attack and has inspired other terrorists with his violent message. Also hiding in Yemen is Samir Khan, an American who declared himself a traitor and helps produce al-Qaida propaganda.

The terrorist efforts "underscore the necessity of remaining vigilant against terrorism," the president said.

The Homeland Security Department said it was stepping up airline security, but White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Americans did not need to change their travel plans.

The New York Police Department's bomb squad also stopped a UPS truck on the Queensboro Bridge as part of the investigation. NYPD spokesman Paul Browne said the package was removed and was being examined in Brooklyn.

New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said that the NYPD removed a package from a UPS truck in Brooklyn, tested it for possible explosives and found it not to be dangerous. The package was an envelope that came from Yemen, appeared to contain bank receipts, and was addressed to the JP Morgan Chase bank in Brooklyn, Kelly said. The package arrived on a plane that landed at Kennedy Airport, he said.

Two planes were also getting checked in Philadelphia. Officials tell Action News in Philadelphia that a total of six packages were removed from two planes there. (MORE FROM 6ABC.COM)

Passenger operations at the airports were not impacted.

FedEx and UPS have immediately suspended shipments out of Yemen, but other operations are continuing.

"Trucks are running normally. UPS was contacted by FBI and TSA about the possibility of suspicious packages. We're fully cooperating with the authorities on this investigation," Susan Rosenberg, UPS spokesperson, said.

U.S. officials temporarily banned all cargo shipments from Yemen. An employee at the UPS office in Yemen said the office had been instructed not to receive any packages for delivery for the time being.

The U.S. has FBI, military and intelligence officers stationed in the country to conduct an inquiry. There are only a handful of international shipping locations in the impoverished Arab nation, but U.S. officials worried that record keeping would be sparse and investigators would have to rely more on intelligence sources to identify the would-be bombers.

Intelligence officials were onto the suspected plot for days, officials said. The packages in England and Dubai were discovered after Saudi Arabian intelligence picked up information related to Yemen and passed it on to the U.S., two officials said.

Most of the officials spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the ongoing investigation.

U.S. intelligence officials warned last month that terrorists hoped to mail chemical and biological materials as part of an attack on the United States and other Western countries. The alert came in a Sept. 23 bulletin from the Homeland Security Department obtained by The Associated Press.

Since the failed Christmas bombing, Yemen has been a focus for U.S. counterterrorism officials. Before that attack, the U.S. regarded al-Qaida's branch there as primarily a threat in the region, not to the United States.

The Yemen branch, known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, has since become a leading source of terrorist propaganda and recruiting. Authorities believe about 300 al-Qaida members operate in Yemen.

The Yemeni government has stepped up counterterrorism operations, with help from the U.S. military and intelligence officials.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report)

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