Police issue warning about security threat to America's Cup

Wednesday, February 26, 2003

WELLINGTON, New Zealand -- Anti-terror police issued a public warning about a security threat to the America's Cup Tuesday after letters containing cyanide crystals and white powder were seized by postal workers.

Assistant commissioner Jon White, head of New Zealand's counterterror squad, told reporters that the identical letters were addressed to the U.S. Embassy and the British and Australian High Commissions in Wellington, the capital.

"A small quantity of cyanide (was) in one of the letters," White said. He said the cyanide can act quickly if swallowed and can be absorbed through the skin.

The powder in the three letters was tested for anthrax, but none was found, White said. A fourth letter containing white powder was sent to the New Zealand Herald newspaper in Auckland.

"It's quite a serious situation, and we wouldn't want to take it lightly," White said.

Enough cyanide to kill up to 20 people was sent in a threatening letter to the U.S. Embassy shortly before the New Zealand golf open in January 2002. White said police could not yet rule out the possibility that the latest letters were sent by the same person, as "there are enough similarities to raise in our minds a link."

He declined to release details of the threats in the letters, but said they related to "actions" that could occur if Iraq was attacked, and during the sailing of the final races of the America's Cup in Auckland.

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

Race 4 of the best-of-nine series was postponed for the fifth time Tuesday because of strong wind on the Hauraki Gulf, northeast of Auckland. Alinghi of Switzerland leads two-time defending champion Team New Zealand 3-0.

White said the letters were secured at the Auckland Mail Center last Friday when workers considered them suspicious after "staff saw some powder coming loose" and called police.

He said the letters warned that an escalation of the Iraqi crisis "could be a trigger in terms of terrorist acts." No acts were specified by the letters. Police has recently increased security around the cup venue but did not believe further restrictions were needed at this time.

"We're concerned people are advised ... so they can take their own precautions," White said. He urged spectators to make sure their food and drinks were safe, and to contact public health officials if "products look, smell or taste unusual."

Police also warned people to be vigilant when traveling by public transport, but didn't elaborate. A similar warning was issued during last year's golf tournament.

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