Officials downplay claim that bomb was close to detonation
PARIS — American and British officials moved quickly yesterday to downplay the French foreign minister’s comment that one of two mail bombs sent from Yemen last week was disarmed just 17 minutes before it was set to go off.
The issue of timing is central to the investigation because it could indicate whether terrorists hoped to blow up the planes over US airspace or whether they wanted to take down the planes regardless of their location.
“One of the packages was defused only 17 minutes before the moment that it was set to explode,’’ Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux told state-run France-2 television. He made no other comment on the Yemen mail bomb plot in the interview and was not available afterward.
Robert Gibbs, White House press secretary, said the question of when the bombs found in Britain and the United Arab Emirates were to go off was still under investigation and there was no information confirming such a close call.
Daniel Benjamin, US State Department counterterror coordinator, also questioned the French minister’s comments.
“This is not our understanding of the situation. Our understanding is the investigators are still looking at the fusing and the timing of a possible detonation, so I can’t confirm that right now,’’ he told reporters in Rotterdam.
A government official in Britain said the device found there was still undergoing forensic tests and it had not been determined how close it was to detonation. A security source in the United Arab Emirates said Hortefeux’s remark did not describe the bomb found in that country.
Both sources were not authorized to discuss the case publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Hortefeux did not say where he got the information about the timing, although US and European intelligence officials have been exchanging information on the plot.
The French Interior Ministry would not elaborate on Hortefeux’s comment.
When investigators pulled the Chicago-bound packages off cargo planes in England and the United Arab Emirates on Oct. 29, they found bombs wired to cellphones hidden in the toner cartridges of computer printers.
The communication cards had been removed and the phones could not receive calls, officials said, making it likely the terrorists intended to use the alarm or timer functions as detonators.
The bomb at East Midlands airport in central England went unnoticed for several hours.
Investigators have focused on the Yemeni Al Qaeda faction’s top bomb maker, Ibrahim alAsiri, who had previously designed a bomb that failed to go off on a crowded US-bound plane last Christmas.