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U.S. warns of possible attacks in Europe

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States warned on Sunday of the potential for attacks in Europe by al Qaeda and other groups that could target public transportation and other tourism-related facilities.

The threat that prompted the State Department’s alert was outlined last week in media reports, which said militants were plotting coordinated attacks on European cities.

“The State Department alerts U.S. citizens to the potential for terrorist attacks in Europe,” it said in an advisory on its website, adding that current information suggested al Qaeda and affiliated groups were planning attacks.

A U.S. official said President Barack Obama held meetings Friday night and Saturday morning about the European security threat and was briefed on the situation again on Sunday morning.

“From the day we became aware of this latest plot, the president made clear we need to do everything possible to disrupt this plot and protect the American people,” White House spokesman Nicholas Shapiro said.

“Whether the State Department issues a travel alert is the decision of the State Department but this alert is responsive to the president’s direction that we spare no effort,” Shapiro said.

U.S. officials said the decision to issue the alert was based on an accumulation of information, rather than a specific new revelation.

“European governments have taken action to guard against a terrorist attack and some have spoken publicly about the heightened threat conditions,” the State Department said. The alert noted that past attacks had struck subway, rail and airline systems as well as maritime services.

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The threats have the potential to dampen tourism in Europe. The State Department had the option of issuing a more serious warning that would have advised U.S. citizens against travel to Europe. Instead, the alert urges them to take precautions when they do travel.

“We’re not saying don’t travel to Europe. We are not saying don’t visit ... major tourist attractions or historic sites or monuments,” Patrick Kennedy, undersecretary of state, told reporters on a conference call.

Kennedy said the United States consulted with European officials before issuing the alert.

“We’ve had intensive discussions in the past few weeks about the nature of the ongoing threat with these key allies through various channels,” including among heads of state and government, he said.

Western intelligence sources said last week militants in hideouts in northwestern Pakistan were plotting coordinated attacks on European cities, the plans apparently surviving setbacks from a recent surge in drone strikes.

The plot involved al Qaeda and allied militants, possibly including European citizens or residents, the sources said.

The British government also updated travel advice for its nationals in France and Germany Sunday, raising the threat of terrorism to “high” from “general,” the Foreign Office said.

Newly appointed White House Chief of Staff Pete Rouse led a conference call with key Cabinet secretaries and other advisers that included briefings from White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

In its alert, the State Department said Americans should take “every precaution to be aware of their surroundings” and should take appropriate safety measures to protect themselves when traveling.

The department said the United States continues to work closely with European nations to combat “the threat from international terrorism” and that information is routinely shared to defend against potential attacks.

The last successful large-scale militant attack in the West was the 2005 bombings on London’s transport system, which killed 52 people.

Additional reporting by John Crawley; Editing by Bill Trott and Sandra Maler