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Armed Sky Marshals to Travel on Some International Flights Over US - 2003-12-29

With the United States still under a high terrorist alert status, the U.S. government is notifying other countries their airlines may be ordered to place armed sky marshals aboard flights taking off or landing in the United States. The top U.S. official in charge of protecting the nation against terrorist attacks says the risk of another September 11 type of attack remains high.

Effective immediately, the U.S. government is reserving the right to deny landing or take off rights to any foreign airline if it refuses a U.S. request to place armed law enforcement officers on board designated flights.

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said "we have requested that international air carriers where necessary, place trained, armed, government law enforcement officers on designated flights as an added protective measure."

Exactly which flights and which foreign airlines will be required to fly with armed sky marshals will depend on the type of threat-related intelligence U.S. officials receive. "We will ask whenever we think it is appropriate. Whether the percentage is large or small depends on the information we have about the flights or passengers or anything else related to it," he said.

Plain-clothes sky marshals are already assigned to some domestic flights here in the United States. In cases where countries may not have adequately trained law enforcement personnel, the Department of Homeland Security is offering to provide that training for them.

But under these new regulations which take effect immediately, any airline that refuses to comply with such a request can be denied take off or landing in the United States. "Any sovereign government retains the right to revoke the privilege of flying to and from a country or even over their airspace so ultimately a denial of access is the leverage that you have," said Secretary Ridge.

These stepped up measures were announced nearly a week after six Air France flights between Paris and Los Angeles were cancelled when U.S. officials warned the French government they could be targeted by hijackers.

Some airlines, including Germany's Lufthansa and Israel's El Al already use sky marshals. But in general, Monday's announcement drew mixed reaction from airlines and industry groups, with the International Air Transport Association saying it opposes the decision to place armed law enforcement officers on board flights.

But as the September 11 hijackers demonstrated, absent law enforcement in the sky, passengers armed with only box cutters can be capable of turning jetliners into weapons.