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U.S. plane attacker "sneaked" into Nigeria: government


Exterior view of the Murtala Mohammed International Airport in Nigeria's commercial capital Lagos December 27, 2009. REUTERS/Akintunde Akinleye
Exterior view of the Murtala Mohammed International Airport in Nigeria's commercial capital Lagos December 27, 2009. REUTERS/Akintunde Akinleye

By Nick Tattersall

LAGOS (Reuters) - A Nigerian man who tried to blow up a U.S. passenger jet had lived outside the West African nation for some time and only returned on the eve of the foiled attack, the Nigerian government said on Sunday.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, 23, was charged on Saturday in the United States with trying to blow up Northwest Airlines flight 253 as it approached Detroit from Amsterdam on Christmas Day with almost 300 people on board.

The London-educated Nigerian, son of a respected former banker, started his journey to Detroit in Nigeria's commercial hub of Lagos, where he boarded a KLM flight to Amsterdam before going through transit at Schiphol airport.

"The man in question has been living outside the country for a while. He sneaked into Nigeria on the 24th of December and left the same day," Nigerian Information Minister Dora Akunyili told reporters in the commercial capital Lagos.

"The father, Alhaji Umar Mutallab who is a responsible and respected Nigerian, with a true Nigerian spirit had earlier reported his concern about his son's activities to relevant American authorities," Akunyili said.

The U.S. government created a record of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab last month in the intelligence community's central repository of information on known and suspected international terrorists, but there was not enough negative data to put him on a "no-fly" list, a U.S. official has said.

Akunyili said Alhaji Umar Mutallab, who met with Nigerian intelligence officials on Saturday, had expressed "deep shock and regret" over his son's actions. He also met with U.S. security officials in Abuja on their invitation on Sunday, a family friend told Reuters.

The United States asked airports and airlines around the world to tighten security after the foiled attack, which raised questions about how Abdulmutallab had been able to get explosive materials onto the plane despite higher security worldwide since the September 11, 2001 hijacked airline attacks.

Abdulmutallab went through normal security checks when he began his journey in Lagos and had a multiple-entry U.S. visa issued in London, a senior Nigerian aviation official said.

"The passenger did not check in any baggage but was spotted with a shoulder bag. He went through a normal screening and check-in process," the head of Nigeria's Civil Aviation Authority, Harold Demuren, told reporters on Saturday.

U.S. VISA ISSUED IN LONDON

Demuren said Abdulmutallab's U.S. visa had been issued in London on June 16, 2008 and was due to expire in June 2010. He said it was scanned without the Advance Passenger Information System (APIS) returning any objection.

"Thereafter, he passed through aviation security comprising a walk-through metal detector and baggage X-ray screening machine. He proceeded to the boarding gate where he went through secondary screening as confirmed by KLM officials," he said.

He was refused a visa to enter Britain in May 2009 when he tried to apply for a course at a bogus college, Britain's Sunday Times newspaper said. University College London earlier said it had a record of a student of that name attending from 2005-2008.

The incident has raised questions about security at Nigerian airports but Akunyili said Nigeria recently passed an audit by International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and another America Transportation Security Audit (ATSA) just last month.

"We want to assure everybody that our airports are very safe ... However, in the light of the new developments, we have reinforced our security systems in all our airports," she said.

Abdulmutallab was charged with trying to blow up the plane by setting alight an explosive device attached to his body.

An initial FBI analysis found the device contained PETN, also known as pentaerythritol, one of the explosives carried by "shoe bomber" Richard Reid in his failed attempt to blow up a U.S. passenger jet just before Christmas in 2001, months after the September 11 attacks.

The device consisted of a six-inch (15-cm) packet of powder and a syringe containing a liquid, which were sewn into the suspect's underwear, according to media reports.

Demuren said Abdulmutallab had purchased his $2,831 Lagos-Amsterdam Detroit return ticket at the KLM office in Accra, Ghana, on December 16 with a January 8, 2010 return date.

(Additional reporting by Rosalba O'Brien in London; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

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