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America's Cup fans warned of terror threat

The Alinghi team are waiting for the weather to improve. alinghi.com

New Zealand security officials are warning of possible terror attacks during the America's Cup sailing competition, which the Swiss team is the favourite to win.

This content was published on February 25, 2003 - 12:50

Police issued the warning after letters containing cyanide were sent to United States, British and Australian representatives in the capital, Wellington.

The head of New Zealand's counter-terror squad, Jon White, told reporters that the letters, intercepted by postal workers, related to "actions" that could occur during the final races of the America's Cup in Auckland.

Switzerland's Alinghi team is leading New Zealand 3-0 in the competition with at least two races to run. Both teams, as well as thousands of fans, are waiting for weather conditions to improve - race four has been postponed five times due to heavy winds.

White said the identical letters were addressed to the US Embassy and the British and Australian High Commissions.

He added that they contained cyanide crystals and white powder. He would not elaborate on the threats detailed in the letters, but said they referred to the America's Cup.

Cyanide

"A small quantity of cyanide [was] in one of the letters," White said. He explained that cyanide was extremely dangerous if swallowed and can be absorbed through the skin.

He said the powder in the letters had been tested for anthrax, but that none had been detected. A fourth letter containing white powder was sent to the New Zealand Herald newspaper in Auckland.

White said the threats were made public because "It's quite a serious situation and we wouldn't want to take it lightly".

He also urged the thousands of spectators watching the sailing competition to be cautious about food and drink, telling them to contact public health authorities if "products look, smell or taste unusual".

Contaminated

His words were echoed by the deputy director general of public health, Don Matheson, who said people should be careful that food eaten in public places hadn't been contaminated.

"In other words, that the package isn't ripped, that it hasn't been sitting out for somebody to add something to it," he said in a statement.

Police have cautioned people to be vigilant when travelling by public transport.

White said workers at the Auckland Mail Centre had called police after "staff saw some powder coming loose" from the letters.

He said the letters warned an escalation of the Iraqi crisis "could be a trigger in terms of terrorist acts", but that no acts were specified.

White also said the reference to the America's Cup "is of considerable concern to us".

Security

Police recently increased security around the cup venue, but did not believe further tightening was needed at this stage.

Enough cyanide to kill up to 20 people was sent in a threatening letter to the US Embassy shortly before the New Zealand Golf Open in January 2002.

White said police could not yet rule out the possibility the latest letters came from the same person, as "there are enough similarities to raise in our minds a link".

Foreign Minister Phil Goff described the incidents as "the action of a disturbed person but using the political pretext for taking the action which he or she has".

swissinfo with agencies

Alinghi facts

Police said the letters mentioned the America's Cup.
The letters also warned an escalation of the Iraqi crisis "could be a trigger in terms of terrorist acts".
Postal workers tipped off police after noticing powder "coming loose" from the letters.
Police urged spectators to be cautious about food and drink bought in public places.

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Alinghi brief

The Kiwis' chances of catching the Swiss are looking remote - no team has ever come back from a 0-3 deficit in the history of the competition.

The fourth race has been postponed five times due to extreme wind conditions.

Alinghi boss, Ernesto Bertarelli, has criticised the delays saying conditions on Saturday were fine for racing.

Some observers said the postponements had favoured Team New Zealand, giving the Kiwis more time to prepare and literally taking the wind out of Alinghi's sails.

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