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U.S. officials: British planes threatened

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Despite recent intelligence relating to British airliners, the main pilots union continues to oppose employing air marshals.
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CNN's Kelli Arena reports on possible attacks by al Qaeda and related groups.
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Britain's plan for marshals on some flights to the United States meets resistance.
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Two days after Britain moved to put armed marshals on some flights to the United States, U.S. officials said Tuesday that the United Kingdom had received intelligence recently regarding general threats to Britain's airliners.

British airlines were informed of the intelligence, U.S. officials said, and some, including Virgin Atlantic Airways, began manning flights with armed officers. It is unclear when the airlines began doing so.

The Virgin Atlantic office in London said the company never comments on security operations.

On Sunday, the British Home Office said it was placing sky marshals on certain passenger flights to the United States. A day later, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security called on foreign airlines to put guards on some flights that fly to, from or over the United States.

The British government first announced the move a year ago, but it was not implemented until now.

The threat is not the first time Britain has received such information regarding aircraft. In August, the country canceled flights to Saudi Arabia because of threats on planes coming into the kingdom.

Air France canceled six flights between Paris and Los Angeles, California, on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day after security discussions between U.S. and French officials.

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said Tuesday that marshals are needed because "there's a continuous stream of threat reporting, that we've seen now for two years, that al Qaeda continues to look at commercial aviation, passenger traffic, as either a target or as a weapon." (Full story)

Ridge said the information comes from credible sources.

Airliners that fail to place marshals on board flights when notified may be refused government permission to land or fly over the United States.

Some reports have suggested that al Qaeda pilots may have infiltrated staffs of non-U.S. air carriers.

"Given the fact that millions of people travel around the world with dozens and dozens of airlines, we've decided to just put the world -- not necessarily on notice -- but remind them that we're all in this together," Ridge said.

It's unclear whether al Qaeda operatives are "able to take off and land these flights," he said, but "we have to assume in part that they are credible, and for that reason we deal with the reality of getting our international friends to help us secure these flights."

Ridge said that it is more difficult for terrorists to seize airplanes, as they did in the September 11, 2001, attacks, but that his department would like to bolster security even more.

CNN's Kelli Arena contributed to this report.

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