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EU: U.S. Request For Air Marshals Gains Reluctant Acceptance In Europe

European Union aviation chiefs met in Brussels today to discuss a request made in December by U.S. authorities to arrange for armed "air marshals" to accompany some flights from Europe to the United States. EU officials were today also briefed by a high-ranking U.S. delegation on the request. Although there appears to be widespread opposition to the U.S. demand in Europe, a majority of current and new member states appears ready to acquiesce for fear of facing flight cancellations

Brussels, 16 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- A top U.S. security official said today that he is "pleased" with the spirit of cooperation displayed by European Union aviation officials.

Asa Hutchinson, deputy undersecretary for border and transportation security at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, spoke to reporters in Brussels after his talks. He said no one had questioned the U.S. approach of heightening security measures in light of intelligence information. Such information prompted the United States to elevate its terrorism-alert status to the second-highest level last month. It has since been downgraded.

Hutchinson said a number of EU countries told him they are ready to provide U.S.-bound flights with armed air marshals should U.S. authorities request it, although he did not name the countries. "In reference to how many countries, I think we have a handful of European countries right now that have some measure of an air marshal program. I would expect that to double to two handfuls. I do believe that you'll see a number of countries that will develop an air marshal program. I've talked to some of them and, really, in response to the recent threats, they're moving in that direction. I think there'll be different levels. Some will be at reserve capacity in the event there's a threat, some will be more general," he said.

A European Commission official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said today that no EU current or future member state supports the U.S. request across the board. He added, however, that many are prepared to yield to U.S. pressure rather than risk flight disruptions. The official said the member states of the enlarged EU fall into two groups. There are those -- such as the Scandinavian countries and Finland, and perhaps Portugal -- who appear "radically" opposed and in all likelihood will not provide flights with air marshals under any circumstances.

Lars Lovkvist is the director of Finland's Air Transport Authority. "We are, in principle, opposed to the use of sky marshals," he said. "We believe that it could easily have negative implications towards flight safety. The use of weapons on board an aircraft is always potentially dangerous, because there are some very sensitive electronics on board every aircraft."

Lovkvist said that in the event of a serious threat, Finland would simply cancel individual flights. Britain and France, on the other hand, have doubts but are prepared to use air marshals. The rest -- among them Belgium, the Netherlands, and Hungary, whose representatives were among those who expressed clear views today -- do recognize a need for air marshals under certain circumstances.

Italy and Germany, among others, did not make their positions clear today. Hutchinson today said the United States is not planning a "blanket ban" on flights that do not have armed law-enforcement officers on board. Rather, he said, the U.S. administration is engaged in bilateral talks to develop comprehensive "protocols" for security measures involving more effective screening and extensive vetting of passenger and crew lists.

Armed guards would only be needed, he said, if specific information exists suggesting a security risk and the measures put in place by the host country in question are deemed to not guarantee the safety of passengers.

The EU official quoted above said the most prevalent complaint among EU aviation chiefs today was that the United States appears to have acted unilaterally when announcing the demand. Hutchinson today rejected that charge. "It is a misperception that we're trying to work unilaterally," he said. "We've always worked on aviation issues in the international arena and [to] international standards. And obviously, you can't be successful unless you work internationally. Our flights are international, our passengers, our airlines are going internationally, and it has to be a comprehensive program."

Discussions between the United States and EU countries will, for the time being, continue on a bilateral basis, as the bloc has no centralized competence in aviation matters. However, European Commission officials said attempts are under way to set up streamlined, pan-European standards for security measures.