updated 3/12/2008 3:29:51 PM ET 2008-03-12T19:29:51

An aircraft violated the restricted airspace around downtown Washington Wednesday, prompting security officials to raise the threat level from yellow to orange and order personnel in the U.S. congressional buildings to prepare to evacuate.

Capitol Police Sgt. Kimberly Schneider said the plane was diverted to a landing in a nearby city where the pilot was being interviewed.

Michael Kucharek, a spokesman with North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, said two F-16s were scrambled after a plane heading south from the state of Maryland violated restricted air space around Washington.

A Coast Guard helicopter also was involved in the intercept and escort of the single-engine Cessna, according to Lt. Gene Maestas, spokesman for the guard's Mid-Atlantic region.

NORAD also used a laser system that visually warns pilots they are in a restricted area, Kucharek said. The pilot turned west and landed at an airport in suburban Leesburg, Virginia, while under escort from the fighter jets.

It was not immediately clear how close the plane had come to the Capitol building, where the U.S. Congress convenes.

The Capitol was not evacuated, but tourists were turned away for a time. The threat level was soon returned to yellow, or elevated and later, green — or low threat — according to police and other officials.

White House press secretary Dana Perino said the White House was notified.

"There was an aircraft that entered into the airspace that there was some concern about, but the aircraft turned around," she said. "We are at normal security levels here at the White House."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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