Britain strips citizenship from teenager who joined Islamic State in Syria

FILE PHOTO: Renu Begum, sister of teenage British girl Shamima Begum, holds a photo of her sister as she makes an appeal for her to return home at Scotland Yard, in London, Britain February 22, 2015. REUTERS/Laura Lean/Pool/File Photo

By Guy Faulconbridge and Paul Sandle

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain stripped a teenager who traveled to join Islamic State of her citizenship on security grounds, triggering a row over the ramifications of leaving a 19-year-old mother with a jihadist fighter’s child to fend for herself in a war zone.

The fate of Shamima Begum, who was found in a detention camp in Syria last week, has illustrated the ethical, legal and security conundrum that governments face when dealing with the families of militants who swore to destroy the West.

With Islamic State depleted and Kurdish-led militia poised to seize the group’s last holdout in eastern Syria, Western capitals are trying to work out what to do with battle-hardened foreign jihadist fighters, and their wives and children.

Begum, who gave birth to a son at the weekend, prompted a public backlash in Britain by appearing unrepentant about seeing severed heads and even claiming the 2017 Manchester suicide attack – that killed 22 people – was justified.

She had pleaded to be repatriated back to her family in London and said that she was not a threat.

But ITV News published a Feb. 19 letter from the interior ministry to her mother that said Home Secretary Sajid Javid had taken the decision to deprive Begum of her British citizenship.

“In light of the circumstances of your daughter, the notice of the Home Secretary’s decision has been served of file today, and the order removing her British citizenship has subsequently been made,” the letter said.

The letter asked Begum’s mother to inform her daughter of the decision and set out the appeal process.

When asked about the decision, a spokesman said Javid’s priority was “the safety and security of Britain and the people who live here”.

Begum was one of three outwardly studious schoolgirls who slipped away from their lives in London’s Bethnal Green area in February 2015 to fly to Turkey and then over the border into the cauldron of the Syrian civil war.

LONDON TO SYRIA

Islamic State propaganda videos enticed her to swap London for Raqqa, a step she still says she does not regret. She fled the self-styled caliphate because she wanted to give birth away from the fighting.

“When I saw my first severed head in a bin it didn’t faze me at all. It was from a captured fighter seized on the battlefield, an enemy of Islam,” she told The Times which first discovered her in the camp in Syria.

She was equally harsh when describing the videos she had seen of the beheaded Western hostages, The Times said.

Begum has named her newborn, Jerah, in accordance with the wishes of her jihadist husband, Yago Riedijk, a Dutch convert from Arnhem. He was tortured on suspicion of spying by Islamic State but later released.

Another son, also called Jerah, died at eight months old. A daughter, Sarayah, also died aged one year and nine months, The Times said.

Her family’s lawyer said he could seek to challenge the British government’s decision to deprive her of citizenship.

“We are considering all legal avenues to challenge this decision,” said lawyer, Tasnime Akunjee.

British law does allow the interior minister to deprive a person of British citizenship when conducive to the public good, though such decisions should not render the person stateless if they were born as British citizens.

Police in Bangladesh said they were checking whether Begum was a Bangladeshi citizen, and Britain’s opposition Labour Party said the government’s decision was wrong.

“If the government is proposing to make Shamima Begum stateless it is not just a breach of international human rights law but is a failure to meet our security obligations to the international community,” Diane Abbott, Labour spokeswoman on home issues.

Ken Clarke, a former Conservative minister, said he was surprised that Javid’s lawyers had given him such advice.

“What you can’t do is leave them in a camp in Syria being even more radicalised… until they disperse themselves through the world and make their way back here,” he said.

“I think the Germans, the French and ourselves have got to work out how to deal with this difficult and, I accept, dangerous problem,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Ruma Paul in Dhaka, Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Queen urges Britain to find common ground as Brexit crisis deepens

Britain's Queen Elizabeth arrives at St Mary Magdalene's church for the Royal Family's Christmas Day service on the Sandringham estate in eastern England, Britain, December 25, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

LONDON (Reuters) – Queen Elizabeth II urged Britain to seek out the common ground and grasp the big picture, a coded plea to the political class to resolve the Brexit crisis that has shocked investors and allies alike.

With the clock ticking down to March 29, the date set in law for Brexit, the United Kingdom is in the deepest political crisis in half a century as it grapples with how, or even whether, to exit the European project it joined in 1973.

While Elizabeth, 92, did not mention Brexit explicitly in a speech to her local Women’s Institute in Norfolk, the monarch said every generation faced “fresh challenges and opportunities.”

“As we look for new answers in the modern age, I for one prefer the tried and tested recipes, like speaking well of each other and respecting different points of view; coming together to seek out the common ground; and never losing sight of the bigger picture,” the queen said.

The comments were interpreted as a coded signal to Britain’s political class. The Times’ main headline read: “End Brexit feud, Queen tells warring politicians” while the BBC said there was no doubt the monarch was sending a message.

As head of state, the queen remains neutral on politics in public and is unable to vote though ahead of the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence, she made a delicately crafted plea for Scots to think carefully about their future.

(Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge; editing by Paul Sandle)

Brexit survival kit helps Britons face the worst with freeze-dried fajita

'Brexit Box' ration kits which contain dehydrated food, water purifying kit and fire starting gel are pictured at the warehouse of emergency food storage.co.uk in Leeds, Britain January 21, 2019. REUTERS/Phil Noble

LEEDS (Reuters) – With just nine weeks to go until Britain is due to leave the European Union, a company is selling worried Britons a survival kit to help them prepare for the worst.

The “Brexit Box”, retailing at 295 pounds ($380), provides food rations to last 30 days, according to its producer, businessman James Blake who says he has already sold hundreds of them.

With still no deal on how Britain will trade with the EU once it leaves, retailers and manufacturers have warned a “no-deal” Brexit could cause food and medicine shortages due to expected chaos at ports that could paralyze supply lines.

The Brexit Box includes 60 portions of freeze-dried British favorites: Chicken Tikka, Chilli Con Carne, Macaroni Cheese and Chicken Fajitas, 48 portions of dried mince and chicken, firelighter liquid and an emergency water filter.

“Right now we are in a Brexit process that nobody has control over, we have no idea what is happening. Our government has no idea what is happening, but you can control what happens to you by taking control yourself,” said Blake.

“One of those things is to be a little bit ahead, have some food in place,” he added.

Customer Lynda Mayall, 61, who ignored government assurances that there is no need to stockpile food for Brexit, said: “I thought: let’s make sure I’m covered in the event of things going awry.

In addition to her Brexit Box, Mayall, a counselor and therapist, has stocked up on household products such as washing liquid, which she thinks may become scarce.

The Brexit Box’s long shelf life – the canned food will last up to 25 years – is appealing.

“In the event I don’t need it for Brexit, it is not going to go to waste,” Mayall said.

(Reporting by Reuters Television; Additional reporting by Alexandra Hudson; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

Britain cautions Russia not to use detained ex-U.S. marine as pawn

FILE PHOTO: Britain's Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt arrives in Downing Street, London, Britain, December 18, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

By Kate Holton and Gabrielle T’trault-Farber

LONDON/MOSCOW (Reuters) – Britain cautioned Russia on Friday that individuals should not be used as diplomatic pawns after a former U.S. marine who also holds a British passport was detained in Moscow on espionage charges.

Paul Whelan was arrested by the FSB state security service on Dec. 28. His family has said he is innocent and that he was in Moscow to attend a wedding.

“Individuals should not be used as pawns of diplomatic leverage,” British foreign minister Jeremy Hunt said.

“We are extremely worried about Paul Whelan. We have offered consular assistance,” Hunt said. “The U.S. are leading on this because he is a British and American citizen.”

Since leaving the U.S. military, Whelan had worked as a global security executive with U.S. companies, had visited Russia and had developed a network of Russian acquaintances.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said this week that Washington had asked Moscow to explain Whelan’s arrest and would demand his immediate return if it determined his detention is inappropriate.

The FSB has opened a criminal case against Whelan but given no details of his alleged activities. In Russia, an espionage conviction carries a sentence of between 10 and 20 years in prison.

Whelan’s detention further complicates a strained relationship between Moscow and Washington, despite the professed desire of the two presidents, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, to build a personal rapport.

U.S. intelligence officials accuse Russia of meddling in U.S. elections – a charge Russia denies.

Putin has previously stated he would rein in Russian retaliatory measures against U.S. interests in the hope relations would improve, but Whelan’s detention indicates the Kremlin’s calculations may now have changed.

SWAP SPECULATION

A Russian national, Maria Butina, admitted last month to U.S. prosecutors that she had tried to infiltrate American conservative groups as an agent for Moscow.

David Hoffman, a former CIA Moscow station chief, said it was “possible, even likely”, that Russia had detained Whelan to set up an exchange for Butina.

Dmitry Novikov, a first deputy head of the international affairs committee in Russia’s lower house of parliament, commenting on a possible swap, said Russian intelligence first needed to finish their investigations. “Then we’ll see,” Interfax news agency quoted him as saying.

Whelan’s British citizenship introduces a new political dimension – relations between London and Moscow have been toxic since the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the English city of Salisbury in March last year.

Britain alleges Skripal was poisoned by Russian intelligence agents posing as tourists, while Russia denies any involvement.

RUSSIAN TIES

Paul Whelan is 48 and lives in Novi, Michigan, according to public records. Whelan is director of global security at BorgWarner, a U.S. auto parts maker based in Michigan.

The company said Whelan was “responsible for overseeing security at our facilities in Auburn Hills, Michigan, and at other company locations around the world”. Its website lists no facilities in Russia.

U.S. media said he had previously worked in security and investigations for the global staffing firm Kelly Services, which is headquartered in Michigan and has operations in Russia.

Whelan’s military record, provided by the Pentagon, showed that he served in the U.S. Marine Corps for 14 years. The highest rank he attained was staff sergeant. He was discharged in 2008 after being convicted on charges related to larceny, according to his records.

Whelan has for years maintained an account in VKontakte, a Russian social media network, which showed that he had a circle of Russian acquaintances.

Out of the more than 50 people tagged as Whelan’s friends on VKontakte, a significant number were software engineers or worked in the IT sector, and a significant proportion had ties to the fields of defense and security.

One of these people served in the Russian navy’s Black Sea fleet, a photo of that person posted on his own account indicated, and a second friend had on his VKontakte page photos of people in the uniform of Russian paratroop forces.

Whelan used the account to send out congratulations on Russian public holidays. In 2015, he posted the words in Russian: “In Moscow…” and accompanied it with a Russian mobile phone number. The number was not answering this week.

According to his brother David, Whelan was in Moscow to attend the wedding of a fellow retired marine. When he was detained he was staying with the rest of the wedding party at Moscow’s upmarket Metropol hotel, the brother said. He did not specify where the wedding itself took place.

An employee at the hotel, who spoke on condition, said on Friday they could not access the hotel’s database to check, but could not recall any weddings being scheduled at the hotel in the second half of December.

(Additional reporting by Polina Devitt in Moscow; Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Singer Jimmy Osmond suffers stroke during UK pantomime performance

FILE PHOTO: Jimmy Osmond smiles at an Osmond 50th anniversary show at the Orleans hotel-casino in Las Vegas, Nevada August 13, 2007. REUTERS/Steve Marcus

LONDON (Reuters) – U.S. pop singer Jimmy Osmond, who performed the chart-topping hit “Long-Haired Lover from Liverpool” as a child in 1972, has suffered a stroke and will take time away from the stage, a spokesperson for the singer said on Monday.

Osmond completed a performance of the Peter Pan pantomime on Dec. 27 at the Birmingham Hippodrome theater in central England before he was driven to the hospital and diagnosed with a stroke, the representative said in a statement on the theatre’s website.

Osmond, now 55, was the youngest sibling in The Osmonds family troupe and became the youngest person to reach number one on Britain’s singles charts with the release of “Long-Haired Lover from Liverpool” when he was aged nine.

“He is grateful for all the well wishes and will be taking time out in the new year,” the spokesperson said.

(Writing by William Schomberg; Editing by Alison Williams)

Authorities must do more to meet airport drone threat: UK police chief

FILE PHOTO: Passengers wait around in the South Terminal building at Gatwick Airport after drones flying illegally over the airfield forced the closure of the airport, in Gatwick, Britain, December 20, 2018. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

LONDON (Reuters) – Government and security officials must “up their game” to tackle the illegal use of drones at airports which brought chaos to London’s Gatwick airport in the run-up to Christmas, Britain’s most senior police officer said on Thursday.

Three days of drone sightings at Britain’s second busiest airport lead to about 1,000 flight cancellations and disrupted the travel of 140,000 passengers in what is thought to be the most disruptive incident of its kind.

London’s Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick said no police force around the world could be sure of preventing the problem posed by drones at airports.

“I think the whole country and certainly the government will have watched what’s gone on and said we need to up our game here,” Dick told BBC radio.

“You won’t find a police service in the world I think who would be sitting complacently thinking: ‘well we could always deal with a drone’.”

The drones were first spotted at Gatwick on Dec. 19. Every time the airport sought to reopen the runway, the drones returned and authorities only regained control over the airfield after the army deployed military technology to guard the area.

Security Minister Ben Wallace said on Monday that Britain’s security forces now had detection systems that could be deployed across the country to combat the drone threat.

“The drone technology is always changing. We have to keep up with that. There are a whole variety of tactics and technologies that we are now using, can use and in the future they will have to change again I’m sure,” said Dick.

“I’ve been talking to colleagues around the world. I can tell you this is not an easy problem. We are doing our very best here and going into the future I’m sure working closely with others we will get better and better.”

The police investigation into the Gatwick incident is ongoing. Detectives on Sunday released without charge two people they had suspected of flying the drones.

Flying drones within 1 km (0.6 mile) of a British airport boundary is punishable by up to five years in prison.

“We need to work even more closely with the private companies, we need to work even more closely with the military, we need to try to be able to prevent the criminal use of drones for whatever motivation near our airports,” Dick said.

(Reporting by Michael Holden; Editing by William Schomberg)

Catch me if you can: London drone attack lays bare airport vulnerabilities

FILE PHOTO: Passengers wait around in the South Terminal building at Gatwick Airport after drones flying illegally over the airfield forced the closure of the airport, in Gatwick, Britain, December 20, 2018. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

By Paul Sandle

LONDON (Reuters) – A mystery drone operator’s success in shutting down Britain’s second busiest airport for more than 36 hours has exposed the vulnerability of others across the world to saboteurs armed with such cheap and easily available devices.

The incursion at London Gatwick, a brazen game of cat and mouse that those responsible played with Europe’s top military power, underlined how many airports lack the means to catch drone pilots quickly, let alone destroy the unmanned aerial vehicles themselves.

Advances in technology mean drones can be controlled from far away using cameras on board, or even programmed to navigate their own way to targets, and back again.

“There is no silver bullet technology,” said Geoff Moore, business development manager at UK-based Blighter Surveillance Systems, which supplies the U.S. military with anti-drone technology he said was used in Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq.

“Drone technology is evolving quickly, the levels of autonomy are increasing, the ease of flight is increasing to the point where they can be almost ‘fire and forget’ one-button launchable.”

The nightmare at Gatwick, which stranded more than 100,000 people when all flights were grounded, was finally brought under control on Friday after the government ordered the army to use military equipment to protect the site.

Moore said radar systems used by air traffic control were designed to spot commercial aircraft rather than something as small and as close to the ground as a drone. To detect them, airports need specialist radar reinforced by thermal imaging technology. “There are no specific regulations or guidelines on UK airports that mandate that they have to deploy drone detection systems,” he said.

STRAY BULLET DANGER

After detecting the drone, it needs to be disabled by interfering with its navigation system or by simply shooting it down. Authorities at Gatwick were reluctant to use guns because of the danger posed by stray bullets at a crowded airport.

And it is not enough to jam some radio frequencies because modern drones were not always radio-controlled like old-fashioned model aircraft.

Richard Gill, founder and chief executive of Drone Defence, said the fact that the drones at Gatwick were not disabled more quickly indicates that they were not relying on a radio link.

“The drone potentially could have been pre-programmed to cause this disruption and there could have been more than one drone over the period,” he told BBC radio.

Gill said the technology that allowed a drone to be pre-programmed so that it navigates to a point or a number of points and then returns to base to recharge, could be bought from online.

“A motivated individual could potentially carry out this act,” he said. “But it is very sophisticated, it is pre-planned, it is very deliberate what they have done to cause the maximum disruption at a really busy airport in the UK.”

JAMMING DRONES?

Jamming tactics can be risky in an airport where there are other critical communications systems.

Defense systems cannot simply block radio frequencies used to control drones, or GPS signals that the devices use to navigate, because of regulations, Moore said.

“The problem with the UK is there are some regulatory requirements around the use of things like radio frequency jamming – it’s illegal to do that,” he said. “There’s not so many mitigation technologies available in the UK because mostly they are restricted or unavailable.”

ADS, a trade group representing the aerospace, defense and security sectors, said it had asked the government to strengthen police powers, as well as the ability of airport operators and others to deploy electronic counter-measures.

Chief Executive Paul Everitt said UK security companies could help airport authorities with systems that detect, track and identify drones, electronic measures to prevent drone incursion, and with advice about the legal implications of using electronic counter-measures in Britain.

But at Gatwick, the perpetrators were still at large on Friday after the most advanced drone attack yet on a major airport.

(Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and David Stamp)

London’s Gatwick airport reopens after mystery drone saboteur sows chaos

Passengers walk through the South Terminal building at Gatwick Airport, after the airport reopened to flights following its forced closure because of drone activity, in Gatwick, Britain, December 21, 2018. REUTERS/Toby Melville

By Toby Melville

GATWICK, England (Reuters) – London’s Gatwick Airport reopened on Friday after a mystery saboteur wrought 36 hours of travel chaos for more than 100,000 Christmas travelers by using drones to play cat-and-mouse with police snipers and the army.

After the biggest disruption at Gatwick, Britain’s second busiest airport, since a volcanic ash cloud in 2010, Gatwick said around 700 planes were due to take off on Friday, although there would still be delays and cancellations.

Britain deployed unidentified military technology to guard the airport against what Transport Secretary Chris Grayling said were thought to be several drones.

“I think passengers are safe,” Grayling said. “This kind of incident is unprecedented anywhere in the world.”

The motivation of the drone operator, or operators, was unclear. Police said there was nothing to suggest the crippling of one of Europe’s busiest airports was a terrorist attack.

Gatwick’s drone nightmare is thought to be the most disruptive yet at a major airport and indicates a new vulnerability that will be scrutinized by security forces and airport operators across the world.

The army and police snipers were called in to hunt down the drones, thought to be industrial style craft, which flew near the airport every time it tried to reopen on Thursday. The last time a drone was spotted at the airport was at 2200 GMT on Thursday.

The perpetrator has not yet been detained but the police said they had a number of possible suspects. No group has claimed responsibility publicly and police said there was no evidence another state was involved.

Sussex Police Assistant Chief Constable Steve Barry said they were keeping an open mind about who was responsible.

“In terms of the motivation, there’s a whole spectrum of possibilities, from the really high-end criminal behavior that we’ve seen, all the way down to potentially, just individuals trying to be malicious, trying to disrupt the airport,” he said.

After a boom in drone sales, unmanned aerial vehicles have become a growing menace at airports across the world.

In Britain, the number of near misses between private drones and aircraft more than tripled between 2015 and 2017, with 92 incidents recorded last year.

An airplane takes off at Gatwick Airport, after the airport reopened to flights following its forced closure because of drone activity, in Gatwick, Britain, December 21, 2018. REUTERS/Toby Melville

An airplane takes off at Gatwick Airport, after the airport reopened to flights following its forced closure because of drone activity, in Gatwick, Britain, December 21, 2018. REUTERS/Toby Melville

THERMAL IMAGING?

The British Airline Pilots’ Association (BALPA) said it understood “detection and tracking equipment” had been installed around Gatwick’s perimeter.

BALPA said that it was extremely concerned at the risk of a drone collision. Flying drones within 1 km (0.6 mile) of a British airport boundary is punishable by five years in prison.

The defense ministry refused to comment on what technology was deployed but drone experts said airports needed to deploy specialist radar reinforced by thermal imaging technology to detect such unmanned flying vehicles.

Other ways to tackle them is typically by frequency jamming that can disable or disrupt control signals and the GPS signals that allow the drones to navigate.

The drone sightings caused misery for travelers, many sleeping on the airport floor as they searched for alternative routes to holidays and Christmas family gatherings.

Flights were halted at 2103 GMT on Wednesday after two drones were spotted near the airfield. The disruption affected at least 120,000 people on Wednesday and Thursday, with thousands more to be disrupted on Friday.

It was not immediately clear what the financial impact would be on the main airlines operating from Gatwick including EasyJet, British Airways and Norwegian.

Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said it considered the event to be an “extraordinary circumstance” meaning airlines are not obliged to pay compensation to affected passengers.

Airlines will have to refund customers who no longer wish to travel however and try to reschedule flights to get passengers to their destinations.

An arrivals board in the South Terminal building at Gatwick Airport, after the airport reopened to flights following its forced closure because of drone activity, in Gatwick, Britain, December 21, 2018. REUTERS/Toby Melville

A Reuters witness at Gatwick’s South Terminal said the airport was busy, with many people waiting with luggage and queues for service desks, but not unusually so for such a day.

Some airport staff handed out chocolate and Christmas elf toys to stranded passengers.

Some, like Sarah Garghan-Watson, chose to stick it out at the airport overnight, having arrived at 8 a.m. on Thursday.

“It’s now 2 o’clock in the morning at Gatwick, and it’s very bright and very noisy. It’s now also very cold,” she said in a video shown on Sky.

“All I can see tonight … is a sign that says ‘no more sleeps until the beach’. And here we are, sleeping, in the stairs at Gatwick, because there’s no flights.”

 

(Editing by Alison Williams)

Britain removes word ‘unlikely’ from no-deal Brexit guidance

FILE PHOTO: EU and Union flags overlap during an anti-Brexit protest opposite the Houses of Parliament in London, Britain, December 17, 2018. REUTERS/Toby Melville

LONDON (Reuters) – The British government has removed the word “unlikely” from its official Brexit guidance telling companies and citizens how to prepare for a disorderly exit where the UK leaves the European Union without a deal.

Theresa May’s government has issued a string of technical notices in recent months with advice on what needs to be done before the country leaves the world’s largest trading bloc on March 29. They cover everything from the movement of organs, blood and sperm to nuclear regulation and organic food.

The notices had originally referred to the “unlikely” chance that Britain leaves the EU without a deal. The documents now refer to simply a “no deal scenario”.

“Delivering the deal negotiated with the EU remains the government’s top priority. This has not changed,” one notice on aviation rules says.

“However, the government must prepare for every eventuality, including a no-deal scenario.”

With just under 100 days until Britain is due to leave the EU, deep divisions in parliament have raised the chances of leaving without a deal.

May has struck an agreement with Brussels on the terms of the divorce but she was forced to pull a parliamentary vote on the proposal last week after admitting it would be defeated.

A spokeswoman for Britain’s Brexit department said the language had been updated after the government started to step up its plans for a no-deal exit.

“We fully expect to get a deal and believe that is the most likely outcome – that is what we are focused on delivering,” she said.

(Reporting by Kate Holton; editing by Stephen Addison)

Drones ground flights at London Gatwick, sowing chaos for Christmas travelers

Passengers wait around in the South Terminal building at Gatwick Airport after drones flying illegally over the airfield forced the closure of the airport, in Gatwick, Britain, December 20, 2018. REUTERS/Peter Nichol

By Sarah Young

LONDON (Reuters) – Drones flying near London’s Gatwick airport grounded flights for at least 15 hours, causing chaos for tens of thousands of Christmas travelers in what authorities said was a reckless attempt to cripple Britain’s second busiest airport.

Flights were halted at Gatwick at 2103 GMT on Wednesday after two drones were spotted flying near its airfield, triggering the biggest disruption to its operations since a volcanic ash cloud grounded flights in 2010.

Prime Minister Theresa May’s spokesman said those flying the drones were “irresponsible and completely unacceptable” and voiced sympathy for people having their travel plans upset just days before Christmas.

The airport and Gatwick’s biggest airline easyJet told passengers to check before traveling to the airport as several thousand people waited there in chaotic scenes.

“It’s really busy. People are sitting everywhere, on the stairs, on the floors,” passenger Ani Kochiashvili, who was booked onto a Wednesday evening flight, told Reuters by phone.

Police said more than 20 units were searching for the drone operators on Thursday when the airport had expected to handle around 115,000 passengers.

“At the moment we’re still getting sightings of the drones in and around the airfield,” Gatwick Policing Airport Commander Justin Burtenshaw told the BBC.

Sussex regional police said public safety was paramount, adding in a statement: “There are no indications to suggest this is terror-related.”

Gatwick, which lies 50 km (30 miles) south of London, gave no indication on when it would reopen and described the situation as an “ongoing incident”.

There has been an increase in near-collisions by unmanned aircraft and commercial jets, heightening concerns for safety across the aviation industry in recent years.

The number of near misses between private drones and aircraft in Britain more than tripled between 2015 and 2017, with 92 incidents recorded last year, according to the UK Airprox Board.

Stranded passengers look at the departures board at Gatwick Airport, Britain, December 20, 2018 in this picture obtained from social media. Ani Kochiashvili/via REUTERS

Stranded passengers look at the departures board at Gatwick Airport, Britain, December 20, 2018 in this picture obtained from social media. Ani Kochiashvili/via REUTERS

“INDUSTRIAL DRONE”

Gatwick Chief Operating Officer Chris Woodroofe warned that the knock-on effects from the airport closure would last for more than 24 hours. He described one of the drones as a heavy industrial model.

“It’s definitely not a standard, off-the-shelf type drone. “Given what has happened I definitely believe it is a deliberate act, yes,” he said on BBC radio.

“We also have the helicopter up in the air but the police advice is that it would be dangerous to seek to shoot the drone down because of what may happen to the stray bullets.”

Under British law it is illegal to fly drones within 1 km (0.62 mile) of an airport boundary. The offense is punishable by up to five years in prison.

Policing airport commander Burtenshaw said the police were exploring other options to try and bring the situation to a close. He said he was confident of tracking down whoever was behind the drones, but it wouldn’t be easy.

“It’s a painstaking thing with the new drones; the bigger the drones the further the reach of the operator so it’s a difficult and challenging thing to locate them.”

SAFETY FIRST

Gatwick apologized on Twitter https://twitter.com/Gatwick_Airport/status/1075530895094894594 to affected passengers, adding that safety was its “foremost priority”.

Tens of thousands of passengers were affected, with hundreds of thousands of journeys likely to be disrupted in the coming days, the airport said.

Gatwick, which competes with Europe’s busiest airport, Heathrow, west of London, had previously said Sunday would be its busiest day of the festive period.

There have been multiple reports of drone sightings since the initial report on Wednesday evening, Gatwick said. The runway briefly appeared to reopen around 0300 GMT before drones were spotted again.

Kochiashvili, who had been due to fly to Tbilisi, Georgia, on Wednesday, said she had spent six hours overnight sitting on a plane which did not take off.

“I’m very annoyed because I’m with two kids, a three-month-old and three-year-old. They require a lot of space and food and changing and all that, and the airport is crazy busy so it’s challenging. There’s literally zero information being shared,” she told Reuters by phone.

Passengers took to Twitter to share their stories.

One waiting at the airport on Thursday said: “At Gatwick Airport, drone chaos, surprisingly good-natured, but complete mayhem.”

(Reporting by Sarah Young in London and Ismail Shakil in Bengaluru; Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Mark Heinrich)