INTERNATIONAL

Britain on high alert for attacks at Christmas

LONDON, DEC. 22. Britain is on high alert amid fears of a terrorist attack at Christmas, even as the search of a London-bound cargo ship suspected of carrying ``terrorist material'' continued today though nothing suspicious has been found so far.

The ship ``MV Nisha'', owned by India's Great Eastern Shipping Company, was intercepted in the English Channel on Friday after a tip off that it could be carrying explosives or anthrax. The vessel, carrying a cargo of sugar for a refinery in East London, had sailed from Mauritius and stopped off in Djibouti, next to Somalia, which has been linked with Al-Qaeda. Its largely Indian crew was praised for ``co-operating fully'' with the investigating authorities.

As experts warned of a terrorist threat, the Prime Minister, Mr. Tony Blair said Britain would remain on ``top-level vigilance throughout these coming weeks''. His remarks at a joint press conference with the visiting Russian President, Mr. Vladimir Putin came as the Home Office painted an alarming picture of the risks facing Britain. ``The presence of extremists in the United Kingdom at this time and for the foreseeable future creates a situation of public emergency threatening the life of the nation,'' it said in a document justifying the detention of a Moroccan national under Britain's new anti-terrorism law which allows foreign suspects to be detained without trial. The man, arrested along with seven other foreigners earlier this week, was refused bail on Friday after the Home Office presented its case.

The 20-page document said as a close U.S. ally, Britain was vulnerable and ``a target for vengeance'' by Osama bin Laden's men. ``Bin Laden's allies need urgently to re- establish their capability and intent in order to make up ground they have lost since September 11; they will seek to do this through terrorist attacks,'' it said identifying the London Underground as among the potential targets.

Security experts warned that Christmas could be a ``prime time'' for terrorists to strike because of the ``symbolic'' value of the occasion. One expert was quoted as warning of a ``Christmas spectacular'' but sceptics dismissed it as an ``annual hardy'' and criticised the Government for creating a ``scare'' to justify the controversial emergency powers it has acquired to fight terrorism. The Government, however, maintained that the threat was real, and Mr. Blair, referring to the interception of the cargo ship, said ``even if the risk is only a potential risk we will not hesitate to take any action that we think necessary in order to investigate any potential threat.'' As the search proved futile, there were fears that the authorities may have got hold of the wrong ship, missing out on the ``rogue'' vessel.

Meanwhile, Britain and Russia agreed to set up a joint working group to combat international terrorism. This would allow the two countries to share intelligence on terrorism, a move which, The Times noted, would have been ``unthinkable only a few years ago''. The talks between Mr. Blair and Mr. Putin were described as warm with the British Prime Minister hailing the new London-Moscow relationship as ``hugely'' valuable.