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Blair Eyes Identity Cards After UK Arrests

Reuters | April 1 2004

LONDON (Reuters) - Prime Minister Tony Blair indicated on Thursday that Britain would speed up the introduction of compulsory identity (ID) cards following the arrest of eight terror suspects this week.

Britain was already planning to bolster its tough anti-terror laws, passed in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, but Blair told his monthly news conference further measures were needed now.

"I think the whole issue of identity cards, which a few years ago were not on anyone's agenda, is very much on the political agenda here, probably more quickly even than we anticipated," he said. His comments came days after anti-terror police carried out the biggest operation since the September 11 attacks, arresting eight Britons in and around London and seizing half a ton of ammonium nitrate fertilizer -- prime bomb-making material.

British police also said they were working with Canadian authorities after they arrested software developer Mohammed Momin Khawaja, a 29-year-old Canadian with Pakistani parents, on Monday. He is accused of "knowingly facilitating a terrorist activity" in Ottawa and London.

"We need to make sure in light of fresh information and operations such as the one that has just taken place that we are up to date with what is happening on the ground," Blair said.

The government has already announced plans for ID cards, but intended to introduce them "incrementally," starting with a voluntary scheme aimed at stopping welfare benefit cheats.

The issue has been controversial, with critics arguing cards would breach citizens' human rights.

Blair said civil liberties were no longer an objection in the "vast majority of quarters" and that practical issues were now the only obstacle.

Britain's most senior policeman Sir John Stevens, who has warned an attack on London is "inevitable," has argued ID cards are "a must" in the fight against terror.

Britons have not had to carry identity documents since World War II, unlike most European who have to produce ID cards at the request of police or officials.

Blair's comments come after detectives were given three more days to quiz the men arrested in raids on Tuesday.

The eight, who police sources say are Muslims of Pakistani origin, were arrested on suspicion of preparing to carry out acts of terrorism.
Meanwhile the arrest of computer expert Khawaja fueled British newspaper speculation that the UK suspects had been using e-mails to communicate with al Qaeda "mentors" abroad.

The Muslim Council of Britain has asked the country's two million Muslims to help police in the fight against terror.

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