Police backtrack on claims there may never have been a drone at Gatwick Airport

Police backtrack on claims there may never have been a drone at Gatwick Airport

Suggestions that there may never have been any drones at Gatwick Airport were down to "poor communications", police have said after facing ridicule.

Sussex Police said they can "unequivocally state" that there were "numerous" drone sightings at Gatwick between Wednesday and Friday.

It has also emerged that police raced to investigate a suspected drone sighting only to discover it was lights on a crane.

Ministers were briefed on the latest situation at Gatwick in a conference call amid growing criticism of the handling of investigation by Sussex Police.

A senior detective had said it was a "possibility" that there may never have been any drones in the area, despite scores of sightings which led to the closure of the airport for three days and caused massive disruption for passengers.

However, following the hour-long conference call – chaired by Transport Secretary Chris Grayling – a Government source said police had accepted that the claim was down to "poor communications".

Sussex Police tweeted on Monday: "We can unequivocally state between 19-21 Dec there have been numerous #drone sightings at @Gatwick_Airport. We want to bring those responsible for the disruption to justice and through @CrimestoppersUK there is a £50,000 reward."

On Sunday, a man and woman arrested in connection with the inquiry were released without charge following two nights in custody after officers said they were no longer suspects.

There had been more than 200 sightings since the first drone was spotted in the Gatwick area on Wednesday, with police taking 67 statements, including from police officers and airport staff.

Police are also carrying out a forensic investigation of a damaged drone found near the airport perimeter, close to the last reported sighting.

In a statement, the airport said: "We are clear that there were multiple confirmed sightings of drone activity at the airport. Therefore we took the necessary actions to ensure the safety of passengers using our airport.

"Safety will always be our number one priority. We continue to support the police with their investigations into this illegal and deliberate act to disrupt Gatwick Airport’s operations."

The conference call was joined by Cabinet Office Minister David Lidington – Prime Minister Theresa May’s de facto deputy – Home Secretary Sajid Javid, Security Minister Ben Wallace and Defence Minister Stuart Andrew.

Mr Lidington was said to have pressed for the Home Office and the Ministry of Defence to update their rapid deployment protocols for signing off requests for military assistance.

Mr Grayling briefed on a meeting he held on Friday with airport chief executives to prevent copycat attacks, while police were said to be working to with the Home Office to "amplify" the message that flying drones near airports is illegal.

Sussex Police meanwhile have denied that the hunt for the perpetrators was "back to square one" following the release of the 47-year-old man and the 54-year-old woman, from Crawley, close to the airport.

The pair were originally arrested and their home searched following a tip-off from a member of the public.

Detective Chief Superintendent Jason Tingley said on Sunday that there were some "persons of interest" but would not reveal if police were close to making any further arrests.

"We are interviewing those who have reported these sightings, are carrying out extensive house-to-house inquiries and carrying out a forensic examination of a damaged drone found near the perimeter of the airport near Horley, which is close to the last reported sighting," he said.

Around 1,000 flights affecting some 140,000 passengers were cancelled or diverted across three days after drones were spotted inside the perimeter of the UK’s second biggest airport on Wednesday.

Gatwick has offered a £50,000 reward, through Crimestoppers, and another £10,000 has been put up by the charity’s chairman, Lord Ashcroft, for the arrest of those responsible for the chaos

Mr Tingley warned police could not rule out the risk the culprits would strike again at Gatwick or another airport.

"Someone, somewhere knows either the perpetrator or perpetrators responsible for this, or has information relating to these incidents," he said.

"Our tactical response, should there be any more drone sightings, is still in place."

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