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Ottawa shut down Canada's more than 600 airports to all but essential flights and wound security exceedingly tight at hundreds of border crossings and customs checkpoints in the wake of yesterday's U.S. terrorist attacks.

"We're on perhaps the most secure footing we could possibly be," said Anthony Polci, spokesman for Transport Minister David Collenette. The ban on routine travel to and from Canadian airports is in place indefinitely and follows a similar edict against flights in the United States, in place until at least noon today.

The only commercial flights landing at major Canadian airports yesterday, aside from planes already in the air when the travel ban was enforced, were about 250 flights from foreign countries that were diverted from U.S. destinations after U.S. airspace was closed.

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The diverted flights, carrying thousands of passengers, were rerouted across Canada, including 44 planes to Halifax, 37 to Gander, 35 to Vancouver and 27 to St. John's.

Other airports that were accepting diverted U.S.-bound flights included Goose Bay, Stephenville, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Hamilton, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary, Abbotsford and Whitehorse.

Lengthy lineups formed at Canada-U.S. border points after Ottawa placed the country's nearly 150 border crossings and dozens of customs checkpoints at airports and marine ports on high alert.

Customs spokesman Michel Proulx said border officials were "verifying the identity of everyone wanting to enter the country" and searching cars, luggage and belongings in a situation he couldn't recall happening before.

"I have been here 20 years. This is the first time we have ever [had this]"

Serge Charette, national president of Canada's Customs Excise Union, said customs officials were searching "pretty much all cars" at border crossings.

Fatigued, stressed and disoriented, thousands of international travellers turned Canada's airports into jet-age displaced persons' camps yesterday as the country became a voyager's haven from the terrorist attacks in the United States.

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At Montreal's Dorval Airport, planeloads of passengers placed frantic calls around the world to reassure loved ones.

"I don't know what I'm going back to. I don't know what to expect when I get back," Svein Wick said after his flight to San Francisco from Montreal was cancelled.

About 5,000 overseas travellers had their flights rerouted to Montreal and Quebec City airports, according to Quebec Premier Bernard Landry.

With Montreal-area hotels at capacity, the Red Cross offered emergency shelter for anyone stuck without a bed.

"It's like there was an earthquake today," said Judith Grenon, a psychologist who turned up at Dorval Airport's arrivals lounge to offer counselling to anxious passengers from Germany, Australia and the United States.

"Even though we're hundreds of kilometres away from the epicentre, we're feeling the impact here."

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In Toronto, Terminal 1 at Lester B. Pearson International was busy but eerily quiet in the hours immediately after the U.S. attacks. By 10:30 a.m., dozens of flights had been cancelled and thousands of passengers were scrambling to retrieve luggage.

The building's public address system was silent and all the televisions in the terminal were strangely blank.

Many passengers turned to cellphones for information, calling friends or tapping into Internet sites for news. Word of the escalating disaster spread quickly from group to group. A stunned Air Canada employee stood below a hanging bank of computer screens, where all the flights were marked cancelled.

"Today the world has changed," he said, shaking his head.

Many airlines whose flights were diverted to Toronto offered to find accommodation for their passengers until normal flights resumed, a move that put a lot of pressure on area hotels.

"The entire city [of Toronto]is sold out," said Gordon Carncross, general manager of the Sheraton Gateway at the Toronto airport. "We're hoping for no-shows."

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Rail service between Canada and the United States was also affected. Amtrak rail travel to the United States was being converted to bus service. VIA Rail said it was not selling tickets for travel to the United States today.

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