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Airport scanners could ease liquid controls

Restrictions on taking liquids on planes introduced after the terror plot to blow up transatlantic airliners could be eased if trials of new scanners prove successful.

The scanners are designed to identify substances such as hydrogen peroxide - a chemical that can be mixed with other ingredients to produce explosives.

The airline industry, which has been hit hard by the restrictions, is hoping the trials at Newcastle Airport prove successful.

A spokeswoman for Virgin Airlines said the new technology could make the restrictions unnecessary.

She said: "With better technology coming on stream, it is appropriate to review the restrictions to ensure passengers are able to make as easy a journey as possible through airport security checks."

The news came as three Islamic extremists faced life sentences after being convicted of the suicide bomb plot, which could have caused more carnage than the September 11 attacks.

Controlled and funded by al Qaida masterminds in Pakistan, the British-born terrorists planned to detonate their home-made liquid bombs on board flights bound for major north American cities.

Abdulla Ahmed Ali, Assad Sarwar and Tanvir Hussain were found guilty of conspiracy to murder by detonating the bombs on airliners yesterday following the largest ever counter-terrorism operation in the UK.

Sue Hemming, head of the Crown Prosecution Service Counter Terrorism Division, said: "These men wanted to bring down several aircraft in a short space of time, indiscriminately killing hundreds of innocent people - perhaps more if they had succeeded in activating their devices while over cities.

"This was a calculated and sophisticated plot to create a terrorist event of global proportions and the jury concluded that Ali, Sarwar and Hussain knew what the target was."

Home Secretary Alan Johnson said: "This was the largest ever counter-terrorism operation in the UK and I cannot thank enough those involved for their professionalism and dedication in thwarting this attack and saving thousands of lives."

Counter-terrorist police and the security services spent more than £35 million foiling the plot and bringing Ali and the others to justice.

Yesterday's guilty verdicts at Woolwich Crown Court will come as an enormous relief to Government ministers, who endured heavy criticism for introducing the draconian luggage restrictions.

Ali, 28, of Walthamstow, east London, was inspired by the July 7 bombers and Osama bin Laden and considered taking his baby son on his suicide mission.

He planned to smuggle home-made bombs disguised as soft drinks on to passenger jets run by United Airlines, American Airlines and Air Canada.

The hydrogen peroxide devices would have been assembled and detonated in mid-air by a team of suicide bombers.

Ali singled out seven flights to San Francisco, Toronto, Montreal, Washington, New York and Chicago that departed within two-and-a-half hours of each other.

Authorities on both sides of the Atlantic would have been left powerless to stop the destruction once the first bomb exploded.

Police said the plot was drawn up in Pakistan with detailed instructions passed to Ali during frequent trips to its lawless border with Afghanistan.

They believe a mystery al Qaida bombmaker was responsible for the ingenious liquid bomb design, concealed within 500ml Oasis or Lucozade bottles.

Surveillance teams watched Ali on his return to Britain as he assembled his terror cell, gathered materials and identified targets.

Undercover officers looked on as the unemployed former shop worker used cash to purchase a £138,000 second-floor flat in Forest Road, Walthamstow.

They planted a secret bug that revealed it had been converted into a bomb factory where Ali met others to construct the bombs.

The flat was also used as a location for Ali and others to record suicide videos threatening further attacks against the West.

In his video Ali warned the British public to expect "floods of martyr operations" that would leave body parts scattered in the streets.

Along with Ali, Sarwar 29, of Walton Drive, High Wycombe, and Hussain, 28, of Nottingham Road, Leyton, will be sentenced for the airline plot on Monday.

The trio were convicted of conspiracy to murder in the first trial last year but retried, along with five other men, for the airliner plot after the first jury failed to reach verdicts on those charges.

The second jury rejected the defence of Ali, Sarwar, and Hussain that the plot was an elaborate publicity stunt.

The jury failed to reach a verdict on Umar Islam, 31, of Bushey Road, Plaistow, in connection with the airliner plot.

But Islam was convicted of conspiracy to murder and will also be sentenced next week.

Three others - Ibrahim Savant, 28, of Denver Road, Stoke Newington, Arafat Waheed Khan, 28, of Farnan Avenue, Walthamstow, and Waheed Zaman, 25, of Queen's Road, Walthamstow - were found not guilty of the airliner plot and the jury failed to reach verdicts on charges of conspiracy to murder.

Donald Stewart-Whyte, 23, of Hepplewhite Close, High Wycombe, was found not guilty of both conspiracy to murder on aircraft and conspiracy to murder.

Adina Ezekiel, for the prosecution, said they would announce a decision on whether they would seek a re-trial of Savant, Khan, Zaman and Islam on Monday.

The arrest of the gang in August 2006 sparked the tight restrictions on carrying liquids on to aircraft which initially caused travel chaos.

Major airlines and the British Airports Authority have since called for the rules to be eased or reviewed.

Current rules state that travellers can only carry 100ml containers on to an aircraft and the bottles or tubs must fit into a re-sealable bag measuring 20cm by 20cm.

The new scanners use an X-ray beam to shine through the liquid to detect the unique "spectral signature" of the image recorded on the other side.

The machine, developed by Sedgefield-based firm Kromek, uses the "signature" to distinguish between harmless liquids, such as water or alcohol, and potential explosives such as hydrogen peroxide.

Kromek's Dr Arnab Basu told Sky News: "If you are trying to carry a liquid which looks and weighs very similar, but is very different in nature, this machine will recognise it very reliably."

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