Nervous Londoners await next IRA bomb Ill-fated bus probably not intended target, police say

February 20, 1996|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON -- Londoners who let their guard down during the Irish Republican Army cease-fire were forced to restore it as the shock of Sunday night's bus bombing reverberated through the city.

The bomb injured eight people and killed one, who was believed to be the bomber. Police said he apparently intended to detonate the device elsewhere. One man injured in the blast was placed under guard in a hospital, leading to unconfirmed speculation that he was a suspect. Police, using Britain's Prevention of Terrorism Act, made two quick arrests.

The IRA claimed responsibility for the blast and expressed regret for the loss of life. For many Londoners, the second fatal explosion since Feb. 9 was confirmation that what could have been an isolated incident was indeed a campaign.

Nervous onlookers stood behind police barricades yesterday, waiting for a chance to peer at the bus, with its top sheared off and windows blasted out.

The No. 171 was a skeleton. For commuters like Louise Hall, a regular on the route that twists across the Thames and through the heart of London, terrorism was no longer a distant threat.

"I'm still shaking a bit," she said after viewing the wreckage. "This is coming closer and closer. How the IRA expects to be taken seriously now, I don't know."

In Dublin, Belfast and London, citizens, politicians and police dealt with the aftermath of an IRA blast that has nearly shattered the Northern Ireland peace process.

Londoners vowed to stand up to the bombers, who ended a 17-month cease-fire with a Feb. 9 blast in the Docklands area that killed two and caused more than $200 million damage. On Thursday, another bomb, was left in the heart of the theater district, where it was detonated by police.

"We were all hoping the first bomb would be the only one," Miss Hall said. "I guess we were wrong. They're not going to stop now."

In Dublin, Irish radio reported that police found detonators in a returned rental car at the airport.

Security around Dublin has been greatly increased because of fears that Northern Ireland's Protestant Loyalists will retaliate.

By blowing up a red double-decker, the IRA hit one of London's cherished symbols. John Grieve, the head of Scotland Yard's anti-terrorism unit, said "the bus was not the intended target." He declined to say whether the person killed, who was believed to have been sitting with a briefcase on the top deck, was believed to be the bomber.

Intended or not, the 10:38 p.m. blast caused shock waves. The bomb detonated in front of the posh Waldorf Hotel near the Strand, the street that connects the theater and legal districts. Covent Garden, the Savoy Hotel and the Royal Courts of Justice are nearby.

"People around here are just going to carry on with their lives," said Karen Lawrence, a Chicago native studying international relations at the nearby London School of Economics. "I guess you can get used to anything. And in London, they are used to terrorism."

During the past week, bomb scares have been reported on subways and trains as passengers worried over unattended items. Airport security has been stepped up. The financial district again is under the grip of the so-called "Ring of Steel," with vehicles passing through surveillance cameras and police checkpoints.

Yesterday, near the blast site, the usually bustling American Express currency exchange office was empty. Covent Garden, with its rows of stalls and shops selling trinkets, books and food, wasn't doing much business either.

"The bombing is going to make a difference with the tourists," said Colin Waite, who was selling antique jewelry in Covent Garden. "We've had these worries before. I guess we'll have them again."

In a White House statement, President Clinton condemned the bombing and urged the peace process to move forward despite "these cowardly acts of terrorism."

Administration officials said the president will put off a decision on granting a U.S. visa to Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing. Mr. Adams wants to visit the United States for St. Patrick's Day.

Mr. Adams said yesterday that the peace process is over and that a new one must begin. But there are signs that Mr. Adams may have lost his clout with IRA guerrillas. The Irish Times, quoting sources in Ireland's security service, said the IRA is under the control of a new, ruthless commander who also is a member of Sinn Fein.

The newspaper did not name the commander but said he had been associated with two bloody terrorist campaigns in the 1980s.

Despite the bombs and threats, British Prime Minister John Major moved to revive peace efforts, meeting for two hours yesterday with John Hume, leader of the Social Democratic and Labor Party, Northern Ireland's primary Roman Catholic party.

"One of our main objectives is to restore the peace process and get the violence stopped," Mr. Hume said.

But on the street near the burned out bus, passers-by did not talk of peace. They talked of waiting for another bomb.

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