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Sat, Jan 03, 2004

What's In A Name?

A Whole Lot Of Hassle If You Get It Wrong

One of the biggest problems facing spy-types in the war on terror is linguistics. Arabic and English don't look very compatible at first glance. At second glance, that suspicion is confirmed. Throw in French as a wildcard and you have a good possibility for screwing up.

That's apparently what happened in the case of six Air France flights between Paris and Los Angeles during the week of Christmas.

And yet, on both sides of the Atlantic, American and French officials say it's better to be safe than sorry.

"It's a period of tension and a period of risk," said French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy. "I prefer the principle of precaution."

There were apparently six cases of mistaken identity overall, according to one source in French law enforcement. Pierre Debue, chief of France's border police, confirmed that in some instances. For example, he said, one name on the list of six provided by the FBI was a five-year old child. The Wall Street Journal reported Friday that two of the other names belonged to an elderly Chinese woman and an insurance agent from Wales.

So far, careful checks of passengers and luggage aboard Air France flights to the US have turned up no concrete evidence that a hijacking plot is in the works. The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times report Air France flights between Paris and LA have been intercepted on two occasions by F-16s. France's Deputy Transport Minister, Dominique Boussereau said it was a matter of course these days that his country was also providing armed fighter escorts for some commercial flights.

"In periods of maximum security, this kind of procedure is common," he said.

But lest you think the diplomatic wounds between Paris and Washington have heald and everything is tres magnifique, there are still tensions over the flight delays and cancellations.

Boussereau says one day last week, French officials cleared an Air France flight, "that American authorities didn't particularly want. We thought that all security measures had been taken, that the verifications of passengers had been such that this flight had every reason to fly," he said on Europe-1 radio. The flight went on to the US, although Boussereau refused to identify it.

FMI: www.tsa.gov

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