MIAMI (Reuters) - U.S. air marshals on Wednesday shot and killed an American Airlines passenger who claimed to be carrying a bomb in his backpack at Miami International Airport.
Federal officials said the 44-year-old American made threats and indicated he had a bomb in his bag as he was boarding a flight that had arrived from the Colombian city of Medellin and was heading to Orlando, Florida.
The man, who arrived in Miami from Quito, Ecuador, was identified tentatively as Florida resident Rigoberto Alpizar.
Authorities said he was confronted by two air marshals on board the Orlando-bound plane and shot.
Many details of the shooting remain confused, but officials in Washington said the man tried to flee, ignored an order to put his bag on the ground and was shot on the passenger gangway.
Law enforcement officials in Miami gave a sketchier account. They said the incident began on the plane but were not specific on precisely where the shooting occurred.
"The passenger then reached into his carry-on bag, at which point, consistent with air marshal training, the air marshals took the appropriate actions. Shots were fired as the team attempted to subdue the subject," said a Department of Homeland Security spokesman.
The shooting triggered a scramble by air marshals to guard airports across the United States against possible attacks. But Jim Bauer, special agent in charge of the federal air marshals' Miami office, said investigators found no immediate evidence of a "nexus to terrorism" and no sign of a bomb.
"There were no explosives involved, that we're aware of at least, on this plane," Bauer told a news conference outside the airport terminal.
A woman who said she was an eyewitness told NBC television's Miami affiliate, WTVJ, that the man's wife had screamed "My husband, my husband," and said he had bipolar disorder and needed medication.
"Her husband ran through the aisle frantically. She ran after him and all of a sudden there were four or five shots," passenger Mary Gardner told the station by telephone.
Federal officials said they could not comment on the allegation that the suspect might have been mentally ill.
Concourse D at Miami International Airport was briefly evacuated and closed down while police snipers, dogs and SWAT teams took up positions around American Airlines Flight 924, a Boeing 757, which arrived from Medellin, Colombia at 12:16 p.m. (1716 GMT) and was due to leave for Orlando at 2:18 p.m. (1918 GMT).
The rest of the plane's 113 passengers were ordered off the plane with their hands in the air and briefly sequestered. None contacted by Reuters had witnessed the incident.
Other flights in and out of Miami were not affected.
Passengers' luggage was taken off the plane and laid out in lines on the tarmac, where police dogs were led around sniffing for explosives, television images showed. At least one bag was blown up in a controlled explosion.
American Airlines' parent company, AMR Corp., said the incident involved an air marshal who had been on the flight from Colombia but federal official declined to comment on what they called "operational details."
Security experts said even if it turned out that the man was mentally ill, the air marshals had acted exactly as they have been trained to in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington.
"The man was clearly intent on committing 'suicide by cop,'" said Scot Phelps, associate professor of emergency and disaster management at the Metropolitan College of New York.
"That's exactly what you want an air marshal to do, that's what they're trained to do," Phelps said.
The incident immediately fueled a debate about government plans to water down some of the security measures introduced on airplanes after Sept. 11, when hijacked aircraft were flown into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Small scissors and screwdrivers will be allowed back on planes as the security emphasis shifts more to bomb threats, government officials announced last week.
The U.S. air marshals service said it was the first time one of them had actually fired on a passenger since the program was beefed up after Sept. 11.
The air marshals say they are held to higher standards of handgun accuracy than officers of any other federal law enforcement agency.
"Historically, the air marshals have been known as the best shots," said Joseph Gutheinz, a former military pilot and retired agent in NASA's inspector general office.
(Additional reporting by Deborah Charles and Christian Plumb in Washington, Jane Sutton and Michael Christie in Miami)
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