Bomb tip clears London streets Police explode small device, link it to the IRA

February 16, 1996|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON -- For those accustomed to a terrorist bombing campaign, it was all depressingly familiar. Coded telephone warnings. Police clearing the streets. The busy heart of London shut down.

Yesterday, police exploded a bomb in the West End theater district hours after an unidentified Irish Republican Army spokesman indicated that the group may continue its bid to blast the politicians to the bargaining table.

A Scotland Yard spokesman said the incident "bore all the hallmarks" of an IRA action, coming six days after the paramilitary group lifted its 17-month cease-fire by detonating a half-ton truck bomb in the Docklands district in east London. The second incident occurred only hours after the British sent 500 soldiers to Northern Ireland, boosting its military presence to 17,000 troops.

No group or individual claimed credit for planting the device, which was found in a sports equipment bag inside a phone booth along Charing Cross Road near Leicester Square. The bomb, described by police as "small," was believed to be made of Semtex explosive.

Unlike the blast in east London's Docklands area last week that killed two people, injured 37 and caused more than $200 million in damage, this bomb triggered panic, not devastation. When police received the first of two telephone coded warnings yester-day around 12:30 p.m., Londoners and tourists were herded off the streets, shops were closed and office workers were told to stay away from windows as a square-mile area was closed.

Top sites and streets were shut down from Trafalgar Square to Piccadilly Circus to Oxford Street.

"The staff are all hiding in the basement now," said Rita Schreyer, a bookstore manager, during the nearly five-hour bomb-related search and shutdown of the tourist district.

NTC Over at the Shaftesbury Theater, though, rehearsals for Tuesday's opening of the rock musical "Tommy" went on.

"We can't cancel the rehearsals because we open so soon," said Dafydd Rogers, the theater manager. "But we have moved to a different rehearsal room, one which is slightly further from the road and safer. The show has to go on."

And in the basement of the Porcupine Pub, the workers and patrons found a way to pass the time.

"We had a few beers and we told some jokes," said John Burton, an assistant manager.

The serene days London enjoyed during the IRA cease-fire in its fight against British occupation of Northern Ireland are apparently over. The "Ring of Steel" security cordon is back up in the financial district. Airport security is tighter. Trash cans, which make enticing targets for bombers, are being removed from some areas.

Since last Friday's Docklands bombing, politicians from both sides of the Irish border have worked feverishly to put the damaged peace process back together.

Yesterday in Dublin, Irish Prime Minister John Bruton said the IRA's political wing, Sinn Fein, faced a "key challenge" to secure another cease-fire.

"It was a profound miscalculation for those who carried out or authorized the bombing to think that their political case will be strengthened by this act," the Irish leader said.

The first detailed pronouncement from the IRA after last Friday's blast also came yesterday. The statement took the form of a question-and-answer interview with a "spokesperson" for the IRA General Headquarters" in the Sinn Fein weekly newspaper, An Phoblacht-Republican News.

The statement blamed the breaking of the cease-fire on British Prime Minister John Major's "cynical misuse and betrayal" of the peace process.

Mr. Major favors elections as a path to talks because paramilitary groups have refused to disarm. His plan is supported by unionists, primarily the majority Protestants who favor continued union with Britain. Nationalists, composed mostly of the minority Roman Catholics who seek a united Ireland, fear they will be dominated in elections -- and later at the bargaining table.

"The fundamental issues at the heart of the conflict are unchanged," the statement said. "There is only one place for all the political representatives of the Irish people to go and that is to the negotiating table."

The statement claimed "there are no splits" in the IRA and said the IRA had "no problem" with Sinn Fein pursuing a "strategy for peace through negotiated settlement."

"But Sinn Fein is not the IRA," the statement added.

It concluded: "We will listen carefully to any parties or persons who have an opinion or advice to offer us, but in the final analysis we make our own decisions and follow our own counsel."

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