LONDON -- Detectives from Scotland Yard yesterday warned the British public to be "extremely vigilant" after a series of pre-dawn firebombs damaged shops in central London and the police discovered an explosives cache in a garage in London's East End.
The firebombings, which caused extensive property damage but resulted in no injuries, were believed to be the work of the Irish Republican Army, according to Cmdr. George Churchill-Coleman, the chief of Scotland Yard's anti-terrorist squad.
Hundreds of people were evacuated from apartments and homes in central London for several hours earlier yesterday, as firefighters fought blazes caused by the devices. They went off at about 3 a.m., when the stores and sidewalks along London's busy Tottenham Court Road were deserted.
The police and merchants fear the bombings might mark the opening of a Christmas bombing campaign on the British mainland by agents of the IRA, which says it is fighting to get British troops out of Northern Ireland.
In recent days, the IRA has taken the credit for several firebombings that have caused widespread damage to businesses in Belfast.
Over all, the use of incendiary devices, mostly by the IRA, has grown sharply in Northern Ireland over the
last three years, from five in 1989 and 33 in 1990 to more than 100 so far this year. Of those discovered this year, more than 70 exploded, Belfast police said.
"We cannot discuss the type of device except to say that they were small devices well hidden," said Mr. Churchill-Coleman.
So far, there has been no claim of responsibility for the firebombings, according to a police spokesman.
The London firebombings, and the intensified activity of British anti-terrorist groups, reflects increasing tension following a growing spiral of sectarian reprisal killings.
Since the collapse of peace talks last summer aimed at bringing together rival politicians representing the mostly Protestant Unionists with the mostly Catholic Social Democratic Labor Party, gunmen from outlawed sectarian paramilitary forces have stepped up their activity inside Northern Ireland.
As of the end of November, 88 persons had been killed in sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, compared with 76 during all of 1990.
In the last two weeks, the British have put more than 1,500 extra reserve troops on active-duty police patrols in Northern Ireland.
The bombs early yesterday were set off in Habitat, the Reject Shop and World of Leather, all located along Tottenham Court Road, and Discount Furniture Ltd. in nearby Islington.
In Belfast, the IRA has been using incendiary devices hooked to timers as part of a long-standing campaign to undermine the economy of Northern Ireland.