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Police officers prepare to enter the basement of a building on Mansfield Street in London on Saturday. Their search was reportedly in connection with the attempted attack on a Northwest Airlines flight as it prepared to land in Detroit on Friday. ((Akira Suemori/Associated Press))

Security has been tightened on all U.S.-bound flights after a man claiming to be an agent of al-Qaeda was charged Saturday with trying to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas Day as it was preparing to land in Detroit.

The U.S. Justice Department said Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab had a device containing a high explosive attached to his body on Flight 253 from Amsterdam. As the flight neared Detroit's airport on Friday, Abdulmutallab set it off, but it sparked a fire instead of an explosion, the government said.

A native of Nigeria, Abdulmutallab, 23, was an engineering student in London until June 2008. British police were searching an apartment block in central London as part of the investigation.

University College London issued a statement saying a student named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab studied mechanical engineering there between September 2005 and June 2008. But the college said it wasn't certain the student was the same person who was on the plane.

U.S. District Judge Paul Borman read Abdulmutallab his charges Saturday, including attempting to destroy an airplane with a destructive device, in a conference room at the University of Michigan Medical Center in Ann Arbor, where he is being treated for burns.

Agents brought Abdulmutallab into the room in a wheelchair. He had a blanket over his lap and wore a green hospital robe. The judge asked Abdulmutallab whether he understood the charges against him. He responded in English: "Yes, I do."

A preliminary analysis of the device shows that it contained PETN, also known as pentaerythritol, according to an affidavit filed in federal court in Detroit.

Abdulmutallab told passengers that his stomach was upset, then pulled a blanket over himself, the affidavit said. Passengers then heard popping noises that sounded like fireworks and smelled smoke.

Jasper Schuringa, one of the 278 passengers on the plane, said Saturday he heard a pop, saw smoke and climbed over seats to stop a man from trying to blow up the aircraft.

In Nigeria, a prominent banker said he feared that it was his son — a former university student in London who had left Britain to travel abroad — who committed the unsuccessful attack.

The father, Alhaji Umaru Mutallab, told The Associated Press on Saturday he didn't know exactly where his son was but planned to speak with Nigerian authorities.

"I believe he might have been to Yemen, but we are investigating to determine that," the father said. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab claimed to have been instructed by al-Qaeda to detonate the plane over U.S. soil, a U.S. law enforcement official said.

Intelligence and anti-terrorism officials in Yemen said they were investigating claims by the suspect that he picked up the explosive device and instructions on how to use it in that country.

Abdulmutallab is on a anti-terrorism watchlist maintained by the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, which includes about 550,000 names, an official said.

People on that list are not necessarily on the country's no-fly list, and New York congressman Peter King said Abdulmutallab was not on the no-fly list. Dutch anti-terrorism authorities said  he was travelling on a U.S. visa valid through the first half of 2010.

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Airport police operate a checkpoint for vehicles entering Los Angeles International Airport in Los Angeles on Saturday. ((Jason Redmond/Associated Press))

Security to increase at airports worldwide

Dutch anti-terrorism authorities said the U.S. has asked all airlines to take extra precautions on flights worldwide that are bound for the United States.

The Canadian Air Transport Security Authority said all passengers on U.S.-bound flights will  require additional security screening in light of the incident.

WestJet said passengers heading to the U.S. will have to submit to a physical pat-down search at the departure gate. Each person will be limited to one piece of carry-on luggage, which will be searched by hand.

The airline is telling customers to arrive at the airport for cross-border departures three hours before their scheduled flight times.

Air Canada said that during the final hour of U.S.-bound flights, customers must remain seated. They will not be allowed to access carry-on baggage during this time or have personal belongings or other items on their laps.

The airline said it is waiving excess-baggage charges for checked luggage on a temporary basis for U.S.-bound customers travelling from Canada.

Air Canada said it would also like to see passengers limit their carry-on items to "the absolute minimum" or even travel with no carry-on items if possible.

Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan issued a statement Saturday saying Canadian aviation officials have been told to "assume a heightened state of vigilance."

"Passengers travelling by air could experience delays due to increased safety measures and should plan accordingly," the minister said.