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British judge extends time terror suspects can be held

SHARE British judge extends time terror suspects can be held

LONDON — A British magistrate ruled for the government Wednesday and declined to release any of the 23 suspects held in the alleged plot to detonate liquid explosives aboard trans-Atlantic flights bound for United States.

Instead, the magistrate found that under Britain's tough new terrorism law, the government may continue to hold the suspects until later this month without filing charges.

Scotland Yard, meanwhile, said a person arrested on Tuesday as part of its investigation was released without charge. Another detainee was released without charge Friday.

Twenty-one suspects may be held until Aug. 23 without being charged, the court ruled. Two others may be held until Aug. 21 under similar circumstances.

The men, all of them British citizens of the Muslim faith, were arrested Aug. 9 as part of a monthslong investigation by anti-terrorism police here.

British government officials have given few details of the alleged plot, other than noting that "this was a plan by terrorists to cause untold death and destruction and commit mass murder," according to Deputy Metropolitan Police Commissioner Paul Stephenson.

In the meantime, an extensive period of evidence-gathering has followed.

Police have spent nearly a week inside the homes of some of the men, many of whom lived in Walthamstow, a working-class neighborhood in northeast London.

Others who were arrested lived in the modestly upscale area of High Wycombe, west of the city. Police have been involved for several days in an extensive a search of a dense woods nearby.

Police so far have executed 46 search warrants on homes and businesses and vehicles, included three Internet cafes. They have been photographed removing computers and bottles from some of the suspects' homes. In the week after the sweeping arrests, 24 of the searches have been completed but 22 are still under way.

Defense attorneys leaving the hearing, a portion of which was held at London's Paddington Green Police Station, declined to discuss the proceedings inside, which were closed to the public.

One solicitor, however, said on the condition of anonymity that "they (the government) have got to start explaining some of this. They haven't said anything and they're going to owe people an explanation."

Family and friends of nearly all those arrested have expressed astonishment at the charges.

When the arrests were first announced, Stephenson said that a group of Muslim extremists had planned to "smuggle explosives onto airplanes in hand luggage and to detonate these in flight." The explosives, police said, were to have been made up of liquid chemicals that, when mixed together, would make a volatile bomb.

The explosives, they said, were to be triggered by electronic devices, such as camera flashes and handheld electronic devices.

As many as 10 flights had been targeted, officials said. Since that initial flood of information, however, British authorities have declined to say anything about the continuing investigation or the case they are building against those in detention.

Under a law enacted after July 7, 2005, when four suicide bombers killed 52 London commuters, police may now request that terror suspects be held for 28 days without being charged, a time span that allows for collection of evidence in what are often complicated cases.

Currently, about 60 terror suspects are awaiting trial in Britain, according to the London Metropolitan Police. If the plane-bombing plot suspects are charged, they would add to that number.

The hearing occurred on the same day that Britain's Home Secretary, John Reid, met with his European counterparts to discuss terrorism, which he described at the meeting as "unconstrained in its evil intention."

The officials agreed to fund additional research into the detection of liquid explosives.

Reid, who has become the public face of the government effort to prosecute the alleged terrorist plot — Prime Minister Tony Blair is still on vacation — faces growing public scrutiny over the course of the inquiry, which remains largely secret, and its repercussions with the British public.

New luggage restrictions, for instance, led to the cancellation of hundreds of flights in England and the misplacement of about 10,000 bags by British Airways. Airline chiefs have lambasted the government's new, strict travel regimen, which initially stranded thousands of passengers.