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Britain: Terrorism Alert Follows Discovery Of Makeshift Poison Lab

Police in London have detained six men of North African origin for questioning after finding a makeshift laboratory for manufacturing a deadly poison called ricin. The case has heightened fears of a terrorist attack in Britain.

Prague, 8 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Britain is on alert against possible terrorist attacks today following the discovery in London of a makeshift laboratory used to produce a deadly toxin called ricin.

Britain's antiterrorism police announced yesterday that six men of North African origin, including some from Algeria, have been detained in the case.

One of the detained men was living at the North London apartment where the makeshift laboratory was discovered on 5 January. Reports suggest the other men were detained in parts of East London. Under Britain's antiterrorism laws, the suspects can be held without charge for up to one week.

Although fears of a potential bio-terrorism attack have been circulating in Europe for months, London's ricin case marks the first time hard evidence has been made public about the manufacture of a substance that could be used in such an attack.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair said the case illustrates a clear and present danger that terrorists are trying to obtain weapons of mass destruction. "I warn people [that] it is only a matter of time before terrorists get hold of [weapons of mass destruction]. And the arrests made earlier today show this danger is present and real and with us now, and its potential is huge," Blair said.

Police have not announced any link between the six suspects and the Al-Qaeda terrorist network. But bio-terrorism experts note that traces of ricin have been found at a former Al-Qaeda laboratory in Afghanistan where the terrorist network was trying to develop weapons of mass destruction.

Ricin is more lethal than cyanide. Less than a milligram of ricin is enough to kill an adult man if it is injected, inhaled, or ingested.

But antiterrorism experts say the poison would have to be transformed into a gaseous form -- an expensive and technologically complicated process -- in order to be used as a weapon of mass destruction.

Still, British authorities are warning that the poison could be used in attacks against individuals in order to spread fear and panic. That threat has led to warnings from Britain's antiterrorism police for citizens to remain "alert" but "not alarmed."

Pat Troop, the deputy chief medical officer with Scotland Yard, said the toxin first causes flu-like symptoms that can last several days before a victim dies. Troop said other typical effects include abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea, jaundice, and eventual heart failure. "If it is injected, it can be fatal. And if someone inhales large quantities or eats large quantities, again it can be fatal. If someone has a moderate amount, it makes them seriously ill, but [they are] not necessarily dying from this," Troop said.

The symptoms of human poisoning begin within a few hours of exposure to ricin. If a victim does not die within three to five days of being exposed, he or she will usually recover.

Medical experts at Cornell University in the United States describe ricin as a toxic protein that is contained within the seeds of the castor-bean plant -- the same seeds that are used to produce castor oil.

That makes the raw materials for the poison relatively easy to obtain, because castor beans are a legal and common garden plant.

Ricin also has beneficial medical uses. It can be used to target specific cells for patients undergoing cancer treatment. It also can be used to help bone-marrow transplant recipients reduce the risk of rejecting donated bone marrow.

The poisonous effects of ricin were first documented by medical scientists in the United States in 1888. During World War II, ricin was developed by the United States and its allies. Since then, it has a history of use in international espionage.

The most famous ricin victim was Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov, who had worked for RFE/RL and the BBC during the Cold War era. He had been a critic of former Bulgarian communist dictator Todor Zhivkov.

Markov died in 1978, four days after he was stabbed in the leg by a man with an umbrella that contained a tiny pellet of ricin in its tip. Although the case has never been officially resolved, it is widely believed that a Bulgarian secret-service agent stabbed Markov with the umbrella as he waited for a bus near Waterloo Bridge in London.

Markov lived long enough to describe the umbrella attack to British authorities. As in Markov's day, there is still no known antidote for victims of ricin poisoning.