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United Kingdom
Prime Minister's Official Spokesman
Lobby Briefing
September 14, 2001
11:30 A.M. GMT

The Prime Minister's Official Spokesman (PMOS) said that the Government clearly recognised and welcomed the unity of purpose shown by the House today. It had underlined what the Prime Minister felt was a unanimity of opinion across the country. As he had said in his statement to the House, obviously people had different points of view. However, it was important to recognise not only the threat we all faced but also the unity of purpose which had been shown in this country, in the US and throughout the international community.

The PMOS went through the arrangements for today. The Prime Minister was attending the Memorial Service at St Paul's. He would then return to Downing Street. Later in the day he was expected to talk again with President Bush as part of the regular series of contacts between the two Administrations which had continued throughout the week. He would also continue his discussions with other world leaders which had been ongoing since Tuesday. Over the weekend, he was due to remain in Downing Street and would continue to discuss the situation with world leaders. Stephen Byers was due to attend a Transport Council meeting in Brussels this evening. The purpose of the meeting was to talk about the issue of airport security with our European partners.

Asked if the Prime Minister would not be going to Chequers at the weekend for reasons of security, the PMOS said no. The Prime Minister would remain in Downing Street because it was the best place from which to make phonecalls and keep in touch with events.

Asked if the Government was planning any new anti-terrorist legislation, the PMOS said that as the Prime Minister had said in his statement today, we recognised that we needed to look at a range of issues, such as extradition laws and the mechanisms for international justice, how these terrorist groups were financed and the money laundered and any links between terror and crime. This needed to be looked at in both a national and international context because what had happened underlined that we were all interdependent. Terror groups exploited differences between countries in terms of laws and legislation and therefore we had to stand united. That was a process which was beginning. It was not at an end. Although he was unable to go into detail, people could be assured that the process had begun. Asked how the process was being taken forward, the PMOS repeated that the Prime Minister had said we had to look at the issues in a national and international context. This included talking to Agencies and Departments. It was too soon to say what might come of the process.

Questioned about Osama Bin Laden, the PMOS underlined that we did not yet know the exact origin of the attacks. That said, the process of assessment was underway and would continue. Asked about reports that Bin Laden's sister was in the UK, the PMOS said that the Laden family was a very extended family and the relationships within it were complicated. Bin Laden himself had distanced himself from his family for the past decade. As to whether his sister was here, we were checking that out. Asked what action we might take if it was discovered that Bin Laden's sister was in the UK, the PMOS underlined that it was important not to jump to conclusions. Firstly, we did not know if it was his sister. Secondly, it was important to recognise the complicated relationships in the Laden family. In terms of procedure, everybody would be handled in the same way as everyone else.

Asked what action could be taken against Islamic fundamentalists in this country who were alleged to have terrorist links and who had expressed support for the terrorist action in the US, the PMOS said that a major step forward in terms of extremist groups had been the Terrorism Act of last year. Both the Prime Minister and Home Secretary had said that we would look at extradition issues. Indeed, Mr Blunkett had acknowledged this morning that the extradition laws might have to change. The issue would be moved forward in that context. We had moved in the past. If we needed to move further we would do so. Asked what sort of changes might be made, the PMOS said we were not at that stage yet. It was something we would have to look at in slower time.

Asked for an update on the number of British casualties, the PMOS said that the helpline in the UK had received 16,000 calls so far. He cautioned that many might be duplicate calls, while others might be from US citizens seeking information about their relatives. However, we remained of the view that the deaths of 100 British citizens could be confirmed on the basis of evidence received. That figure was expected to rise to several hundred. Inevitably it would take time for any figures to be confirmed given the current circumstances in New York. Asked when lists of casualties might be published, the PMOS said it depended on how quickly the search for bodies yielded results and how quickly the process of checking names on the list compiled through calls to the helpline could operate. That was not a matter for us. It was dependent on what happened on the ground. We recognised that it was a very difficult time for families. We would do all we could to speed up the process. However we had to recognise the restraints on the ground.

Asked how serious the Prime Minister believed the threat of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons to this country to be, the PMOS said that we did not believe that terrorist groups had these capabilities as yet. However, we were concerned that they had the desire to achieve those capabilities. The underlying point, as demonstrated by the attack on New York, was that they did not value the sanctity of the lives of those they might kill nor their own. Consequently, the dangers could not in any way be underestimated. Asked which states the Prime Minister believed traded the technology for nuclear and biological weapons of mass destruction, the PMOS said he was not going to get into details of who was and was not a suspect. That said, it was clear that there were genuine concerns. Tuesday's events had shown that there were people without any respect for the sanctity of human life who were prepared to use such weapons if they were able to get their hands on them.

Asked about the Prime Minister's contacts with other world leaders, the PMOS said that as the Prime Minister had indicated, we had welcomed the condemnation from the Arab and Muslim world. We had particularly welcomed Pakistan's condemnation and its statement that it would co-operate with us. As to what that might mean, discussions would continue between ourselves, the Pakistan Government and the US Administration.

Asked if we were prepared to fight the 'war against terrorism', the PMOS said that the Prime Minister had recognised ever since his first response at Brighton that this was not just an attack on the US. It was an attack on the way we all lived. In very real terms, the attack had resulted in many casualties, including British citizens. We were therefore intimately involved. Consequently, and as the Prime Minister had underlined, the international community as a whole must stand up to terrorism.

Asked whether any British officials were due to go to the US to assist in any way, the PMOS said that we had been in constant contact with the American Administration and our officials already based there. If there was any further assistance needed, no doubt it would be provided.

Put to him that the current quest was not just to find the perpetrators of this particular attack but to deal with those countries with terrorist links even though they might not have been involved in Tuesday's events, the PMOS pointed out that a common theme running through the responses of the British Government and American Administration was that global terrorism was a problem which would have to be addressed over the short, medium and long term. This was not a one-off problem. We had to look at how terrorism was funded and how these groups operated. It was not a process which would take one week or one month. It was a process which would take much longer.

Asked whether Downing Street had been involved in arranging a special RAF flight to bring home a group of MPs who had been in the US, the PMOS said that we had been in contact with our Embassy and officials in the US about how we could help anyone there in any way. This had included the group of MPs. Asked why the special flight had been arranged, the PMOS pointed out that, as the Prime Minister had said, we believed it was very important that Parliament, as the foundation of our own democracy, had the chance to debate what had happened. It had been important for MPs to attend today's session.

Asked if the Prime Minister had had anything specific in mind when he talking about reinvigorating the Middle East Peace Process, the PMOS pointed out that we were only a few days on from the events of Tuesday. That said, it was important to recognise that this Government had always believed, as in the case of Northern Ireland, that the peace process in the Middle East was of vital importance. We would do anything we could to help move it forward. How that might be done would have to be considered over the next few weeks.

Put to him that the Prime Minister had appeared to imply that the main purpose of the policy of international co-operation, agreement and deliberation was to keep the coalition together, the PMOS said that of course the US had the right - and reserved the right - to act in whatever way it saw fit. That remained the case. Equally, the Prime Minister had been clear from the outset that global terrorism was a common problem for all Governments. It therefore had to have an international solution. That had been the whole point of the conversations he had been having with a range of leaders in Europe, in addition to contacts with Arab countries. Consequently, the focus was very much on building an international consensus - not just about what happened in the short term but also how we eradicated terrorism in the longer term.

Asked if the Prime Minister had cancelled all events and meetings in his diary and when his normal schedule might resume, the PMOS said that the Prime Minister considered Tuesday's events to be his number one priority and this was what he was focussing on at the moment - although not of course to the exclusion of all other business. What he might do next week would be decided over the weekend. Ministers, however, had been engaged in Government business this week. In terms of the business community, the Government welcomed the fact that the Stock Exchange had continued to work. We also welcomed the plans for the New York Stock Exchange to return to work next week.

Asked whether Parliament would be recalled again if British forces were to be deployed, the PMOS said he was not going to get into hypotheticals. The Government would respond in the appropriate way to whatever the circumstances were at the time. Of course Parliament would be kept informed.

Asked if it was right that taxpayers should foot the bill for subversive individuals in the UK some of whom claimed state benefits, the PMOS said that the individuals in question would be treated within the normal processes of the law. That was what distinguished us from those that tried to destroy democracy.

Asked if the Prime Minister's 'war against terrorism' included the Real IRA, the PMOS said that the Prime Minister had made very clear - both before Omagh and since - the Government's determination to deal with the Real IRA.

END


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Crown copyright material reproduced with the permission of the Controller of HMSO.