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Another hijacking foiled?

Box cutter found on Sept. 11 flight, flags at full staff

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WASHINGTON — A box-cutter knife has been discovered under a seat cushion on American Airlines Flight 160, a Boeing 767 that was to have flown from San Diego to New York's Kennedy International Airport early on Sept. 11, but that was unable to take off before federal authorities halted commercial air traffic.

The plane is one of several aircraft on which knives or box-cutters have been discovered after hijackers crashed four jetliners into the World Trade Center Towers, the Pentagon and a field in rural Pennsylvania. Investigators are also scrutinizing knives found on an airplane that was scheduled to leave from Boston on Sept. 11, and another on a plane that was due to depart from Atlanta, a source confirmed.

Authorities are interested in the box cutters because they have concluded that the hijackers used the knives to commandeer the planes. In addition, authorities have stepped up efforts to determine whether airline employees might have aided the hijackers and whether the terrorists embarked on multiple practice flights in preparation for the attacks. A source close to the investigation said the knife on the San Diego plane was discovered by maintenance personnel on Monday, after the 767 was flown from San Diego to American's maintenance base near the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport.

Although airline mechanics and other ground personnel routinely carry box-cutter-type knives, in which a push-up blade is encased in a plastic handle, the source said the knife found on Flight 160 was made by the Stanley tool company and was not the company's standard knife.

In Washington, President Bush consulted at length with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday as the United States mustered a military assault on terrorism. Americans returned to their weekend games in a semblance of normalcy, but now their stadiums were no-fly zones.

It was the last day that Americans flew their flags at half-staff. Bush planned to raise the flag high at Camp David on Sunday, symbolically ending a period of national mourning that no ceremony could hope to set aside.

More pieces fell into place for the war planning and coalition building, with America's Middle East allies stepping up in measured ways to support the gathering operation to uproot Osama bin Laden and his terrorist network. The United Arab Emirates cut ties with the Taliban, and NATO ally Turkey said it would let American warplanes use its airspace and airports.

But Bush also had to contend with fears that pieces of the U.S. economy are coming apart from the shock waves of the Sept. 11 terror attacks. Emphasizing the bright side, he declared in his radio address that the economy is strong at its core. "They brought down a symbol of American prosperity," Bush said of the terrorists, "but they could not touch its source."

He signed a $15 billion aid package for the horsewhipped airline industry (see story on A3). Many analysts predict the country will not escape recession.

Still, said Bush, "No terrorist will ever be able to decide our fate."

The sports-starved public took advantage of the first full menu of weekend baseball and football since the attacks. But it was not quite the same — authorities banned all aircraft from flying within three miles of major sporting events and spectators were barred from taking backpacks or containers to the games.

In New York, the air traffic control tower and a terminal at Kennedy International Airport were evacuated Saturday afternoon because of a bomb scare, the Federal Aviation Administration said. Some departures were halted but incoming flights were permitted to land; a backup tower was set up until operations could be brought back to normal.

Investigators pressed their international sweep for suspects wanted in the devastating hijackings that left the World Trade Center in ruins, one side of the Pentagon smashed, another airliner down in Pennsylvania and more than 6,000 people dead or missing.

An investigator familiar with the probe, insisting on anonymity, said one of the four people arrested in Britain on Friday was a pilot who took flying lessons in Arizona with one of the alleged hijackers on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon.

Also arrested were the pilot's wife and brother, said the source. The four are being questioned under an anti-terrorism law that allows British police to detain suspects for seven days without charges.

On the diplomatic front, Bush and Putin spoke for an hour by phone, their third talk since the attacks, and the Russian leader said later, "We must unite forces of all civilized society." Still, he was not specific in his public comments about Russia's course in joining the "battle with terror." The White House called the talk constructive.

U.S. officials would not comment on a claim by a Taliban official that an unmanned spy plane was shot down over northern Afghanistan, where heavy fighting was reported Saturday between the Taliban militia and opposition forces. A Pentagon spokesman, Lt. Col. Mike Milord, said "we will not discuss any operational issues."

Afghanistan's ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef, said the plane came down in the northern Samangan province. "We are still trying to ascertain what country this plane belongs to," Zaeef said. The most common unmanned reconnaissance plane is the Predator, a 27-foot-long aircraft that can fly for 40 hours under remote control.

Bush planned to sign an executive order identifying terrorist organizations and specific terrorists around the world and aiming to freeze their U.S. assets.

In a morning meeting, Bush and a select trio of aides sat alone at a huge conference table at Camp David, speaking in a teleconference with teams of advisers back in Washington. Condoleezza Rice, his national security adviser; Andy Card, his chief of staff; and CIA Director George Tenet were with him.

It was part of Bush's daily choreography of war planning, diplomacy and economic confidence-building, all the while keeping track of the largest criminal investigation in U.S. history.

Overseas:

The UAE cut relations with Afghanistan's Taliban government and a Saudi official said his kingdom was considering doing the same. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are the only other countries that recognize the hard-line Taliban as Afghanistan's government.

Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit told Bush in a letter that he has agreed to allow U.S. Air Force transport aircraft to use Turkish airspace and airports. Turkey, a member of NATO and a country with an overwhelmingly Muslim population, has also offered to share intelligence.

Air Force Lt. Gen. Charles Wald, commander of U.S. Central Command's air component, has shifted operations from South Carolina to Saudi Arabia, where he could plan and direct air attacks against Afghanistan and other possible targets in the region. B-52 bombers thundered away from Louisiana en route to the region.

Members of Afghanistan's anti-Taliban alliance traveled to Italy to meet Afghanistan's former king, who has been mentioned as a possible successor if the Taliban are ousted by the United States.


Contributing: Associated Press