EU and U.S. hold talks after terror alert causes alarm

LUXEMBOURG Thu Oct 7, 2010 2:41pm EDT

German federal police (Bundespolizei) patrol at the main railway station Hauptbahnhof in Berlin October 4, 2010. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

German federal police (Bundespolizei) patrol at the main railway station Hauptbahnhof in Berlin October 4, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Fabrizio Bensch

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LUXEMBOURG (Reuters) - The EU and the United States met on Thursday to discuss improving their coordination of security alerts, after a U.S. warning of possible terrorist attacks sparked alarm in Europe.

There was "no reason" to question a decision by the U.S. State Department on Sunday to issue an alert warning American citizens to exercise caution if traveling to Europe, EU commission for home affairs Cecilia Malmstrom said.

But other officials said the bloc and the United States should consult more on such alerts, and coordinate policies so that Europeans are properly informed about risks.

"This communication has led to a degree of insecurity in Europe," Belgium's home affairs minister Annemie Turtelboom said after a meeting between EU ministers and U.S. Deputy Homeland Security Secretary Jane Holl Lute in Luxembourg.

"The discussion we had was how to strike a balance between communication and not alarming the public," she said. Turtelboom spoke to reporters on behalf of other ministers because Belgium holds the bloc's rotating presidency until the end of the year.

Lute briefed the EU ministers on the travel alert.

"She confirmed there was a persistent terrorist threat but did not specify the targets," French interior minister Brice Hortefeux said.

After the U.S. advisory several European states also issued alerts.

Britain raised the terrorism alert level in its advice to travellers to Germany and France to "high" from "general," while leaving the threat level at home unchanged at "severe."

The French government on Wednesday warned citizens traveling to Britain to exercise caution due to a very high risk of terrorist action in the country.

AL QAEDA PLOT?

Security sources say the trigger for the series of warnings was intelligence about a possible al Qaeda-related plot to launch assaults on European cities modeled on the 2008 Mumbai attacks by Pakistan-based gunmen that killed about 170 people.

EU Counter-Terrorism Coordinator Gilles de Kerchove said there was rising concern over Europeans trained by al Qaeda and returning to Europe to mount attacks.

"They hold passports of member states ... they are not known by the law enforcement and more difficult to detect," he said.

"We know some Somalis in Denmark and Sweden went to Somalia and went back to Denmark to mount attacks," he said. "The French arrested several French who went to Afghanistan."

Turtelboom said EU ministers wanted to hold annual meetings with U.S. homeland security officials to exchange information about terror risks and how they are communicated.

"We should be able to anticipate events so that we do not alarm people but properly circumscribe information from other continents," she said.

In Europe, she said, member states should discuss introducing uniform terminology for threat levels to ensure the public understood risks. Some EU governments use numbers while others use color codes to denote the seriousness of threat.

(Reporting by Justyna Pawlak; editing by Andrew Roche)

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