Give us gas masks, says Parliament

Author (Person)
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Series Details Vol.7, No.34, 20.9.01, p1, 3
Publication Date 20/09/2001
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Date: 20/09/01

By John Shelley

MEPS and staff in the European Parliament have demanded they be issued gas masks following fears that terrorists linked to Osama bin Laden were planning to attack them with Sarin nerve gas.

More than 100 deputies and officials have written to President Nicole Fontaine calling for radical protection measures after reports that a six-strong terror cell had been plotting to pump the lethal gas into the institution's Strasbourg home.

The group, which includes the chairman of the foreign affairs committee, Elmar Brok, eight other MEPs, assistants, translators and administrators, say in their letter that there is an atmosphere of "tension and insecurity" in the Parliament.

They are demanding that the institution practises emergency evacuations and beefs up its security checks.

Italian MEP Luigi Cesaro described security at the Parliament as "absolutely inadequate", adding: "I now feel really worried about my safety and the safety of my assistant. In the light of recent events, everything should be done to avoid another catastrophe."

According to newspaper reports, Algerian terrorists had been planning to launch an attack on the Parliament during its plenary session in February. The Sarin nerve agent they were planning to planning to attack with is 26 times more deadly than cyanide and was used by Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo to devastating effect in the Tokyo subway in 1995, when 5,000 were affected and 12 people were killed.

The Strasbourg plot was apparently foiled only after German police arrested six suspects in Frankfurt.

Parliament leaders have tried to play down the danger of terrorist action. They say police assured them that the suspects' likely targets were Strasbourg's cathedral and its market rather than the institution.

Parliament spokeswoman Helen McAvoy said: "Every single thing we hear like this is thoroughly checked out but reassurances have now been given by the French and the German authorities that the Parliament is, as far as anyone can say, not a target."

Nonetheless security has been beefed up in the wake of last week's terrorist attacks in Washington and New York.

Everyone in the building is now asked to keep their ID cards on permanent display rather than just showing them on entering. All bags are now being x-rayed and security in car parks has been increased. Small and medium sized business group, the SME Union, has warned its members to arrive 30 minutes early for a conference in the Parliament today (20 September) to allow for delays caused by the more stringent checks.

Irish MEP Patricia McKenna said: "They have tightened up security just in this case but as far as I can see this should be the way it's done all the time."

Celia Malmström, a Swedish MEP, said she was satisfied with the extra measures but warned against further increases in security, stressing it is important to have an open elected assembly. "It's already difficult for a citizen to just come in and listen to a debate," she said. "We can't have a European Parliament that is closed to the citizens - that would be giving in to the terrorists."

Other EU institutions have also increased security, with extra guard patrols inside the Council of Ministers and more police outside.

Delivery vehicles are now being searched and mail to the building more closely scrutinised for possible parcel bombs.

Similar measures have been introduced in the European Commission.

One Union executive official recounted how he was now being asked to show his ID badge on entry despite have worked in the institution for 16 years and being well known by all the security staff. "There is a definite tightening of security and it seems to be quite effective," he said. "I think now of course it's a special case but in general I don't feel threatened."

However, others questioned how effective measures such as asking people to hang ID cards round their neck would be.

McKenna said: "The problem is that if somebody is determined enough to do something no matter how tight the security is they will find a way of getting through it."

MEPS and staff in the European Parliament have demanded they be issued gas masks following fears that terrorists linked to Osama bin Laden were planning to attack them with Sarin nerve gas.

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