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Iraqis held at Suffolk airbase

PUBLISHED: 11:00 27 September 2001 | UPDATED: 10:34 03 March 2010

SEVEN men were being quizzed by detectives today after a terror alert at a Suffolk airbase.

Security remained tight at USAF Lakenheath after the discovery of six men, believed to be Iraqi, hidden in a frozen food lorry trying to enter the base yesterday.

SEVEN men were being quizzed by detectives today after a terror alert at a Suffolk airbase.

Security remained tight at USAF Lakenheath after the discovery of six men, believed to be Iraqi, hidden in a frozen food lorry trying to enter the base yesterday.

The six stowaways, and a lorry driver – believed to be German – were arrested under the Terrorism Act 2000, after security personnel heard banging coming from inside the vehicle at around midday.

A search using sniffer dogs revealed a hidden human cargo.

The lorry, which had entered Britain via Dover en-route from Calais, had been stopped in a routine check at the base's main gate, following increased security at the largest US military complex in Europe since the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington DC 16 days ago.

The lorry driver was arrested on suspicion of people-smuggling while his passengers were detained on suspicion of entering Britain illegally. All were arrested under the Terrorism Act.

The group was taken to an undisclosed location where Suffolk police officers continued to question them today. Police would not reveal whether the seven men were being held at the same location.

The find sparked a massive security operation involving armed police and American security personnel.

The steady stream of vehicles entering the base in the rain today was searched by four men in camouflage using mirrors on sticks. Gate 2 was closed off with barriers.

The base, which is home to the 48th Fighter Wing and to the only F-15 fighter wing in Europe, is equipped with two squadrons of F-15E and one squadron of F-15C aircraft. Planes have already left the base for the Middle East and are expected to play a major role in any future military conflict.

An RAF Lakenheath spokesman said: "Security forces personnel heard loud banging coming from the compartment under the lorry and notified Ministry of Defence police and Suffolk Constabulary."

The main gate and A1065 road were closed as police with sniffer dogs searched the vehicle.

Base commander Colonel John Snider said: "Our airmen were doing their jobs the right way, they found something that wasn't right and they took action.

"It's an excellent reminder to us all to be vigilant when it comes to force protection – you never know what could happen."

The lorry belonged to chilled food distribution company Turners (Soham) Ltd, from Newmarket, and was making a routine delivery to USAF Lakenheath.

Managing director of Turners Paul Day said the lorry had been impounded and the company had no idea when its driver would be released. He is being held at a Suffolk police station.

Mr Day said the problem of illegal immigrants stowing on to trucks was a growing one.

He added: "This is the second time some have actually managed to get into the country on our lorries. Last year we found some at our depot.

"I am 100pc certain our driver was not involved in transporting the immigrants found at Lakenheath. He has worked for our Dutch office for quite a while.

"I am concerned about what is becoming a major problem for us, particularly with the security implications of Lakenheath. Our driver has been arrested, our vehicle impounded and our company secretary has spent the afternoon trying to reassure the authorities, who are concerned to make sure they are refugees.

"Our primary responsibility now is to our driver to try and get him released and able to get on with his life."

Mr Day said the Dutch-based Turners lorry was transporting food from Germany to Lakenheath. It travelled into the UK by ferry early yesterday.

The Iraqis were discovered in a sealed pallet carrier under the main container. It had been locked from the outside, leading Mr Day to believe they must have had an accomplice.

"We believe they entered the pallet carrier sometime between loading the vehicle in Germany and getting on the boat, or during the boat trip. They probably had an accomplice who locked them inside.

"These carriers are not designed for people. The main danger is that they could suffocate," he said.

"Stowaways are a major problem. There is just desperation among refugees to get into this country."

Mr Day said drivers were told to check their lorries before leaving service stations, a favourite stowaway spot, and when getting on and off ferries.

Because the carrier had been locked from the outside on this occasion the driver would have had no reason to believe anyone was inside, he added.

"Immigrants will hide inside vehicle chassis and air deflectors. It is virtually impossible to find them. As far as I am concerned we are taking all the precautions we can."

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