British arrest 8 terror suspects

700 police carry out raids in London, SE England

ammonium nitrate seized

March 31, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

LONDON - In one of the largest antiterrorism operations since those that followed the Sept. 11 attacks, 700 British police officers swept through London and parts of southeast England yesterday, arresting eight men suspected of preparing a terror attack.

Police were holding the suspects, all reported to be of Pakistani origin, without charge.

In searches conducted at two dozen homes and properties, the authorities found a cache of about 1,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate fertilizer in a commercial storage locker near central London. The common chemical is an important ingredient in making explosives.

`Acts of terrorism'

At a news conference called to alert the public, Peter Clarke, chief of the antiterrorist branch of the London Metropolitan Police and national antiterrorism coordinator, said the eight men "have been arrested on suspicion of being concerned in the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism."

Clarke said the investigation would focus partly on the "purchase, storage and intended use" of the ammonium nitrate, which was stored in a large white bag inside the storage locker.

The police would not say whether they had found detonators or other paraphernalia to indicate whether the fertilizer chemical was intended for use as an explosive. No descriptions of the arrested men's occupations made it possible to ascertain whether any of them was involved in farming, where fertilizer acquisition might be common in spring.

"This is a complex and protracted investigation, which will be detailed, very thorough and take some time to complete," Clarke said.

Police did not disclose any information about the possible affiliation of those arrested with known terror organizations or networks. But "this operation is not linked to either Irish Republican terrorism or to the recent attack in Madrid," Clarke said.

The BBC quoted an unidentified police official as saying that all of the arrested men were British nationals of Pakistani origin and that surveillance of some individuals had been under way for months.

Clarke said seven of those arrested were 17 to 22 years old; the eighth man is 32.

Senior police officials seemed reluctant to characterize any possible connection between the arrests and terror networks such as al-Qaida, although Clarke said the arrests had arisen from investigations into international terrorist activity.

Officers from five jurisdictions took part in the dawn raids in towns and villages including Uxbridge, Colindale, Ilford, Crawley, Slough, Luton, Horley and Reading - all on commuter lines that radiate out from the city.

Clarke said the raids were "part of continuing and extensive inquiries by police and the security service into alleged international terrorist activity, and I must stress that the threat from terrorism remains very real."

Expecting criticism

Seeking to pre-empt criticism from Britain's Muslim population, estimated to be 1.5 million, Clarke said that "we in the police service know that the overwhelming majority of the Muslim community are law-abiding and completely reject all forms of violence."

But, he added, "we have a responsibility to all communities to investigate suspected terrorist activity."

Clarke also said police officials were holding discussions with leaders of the Muslim community to "address any concerns they may have."

Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, the leader of one Muslim community group, said in a telephone interview that police sweeps and arrests in Britain over the past three years had angered and alienated thousands of young Muslims.

"They are stopped and searched and arrested, but if you keep the figures on how many are convicted, you can see that few of them are," he said.

Massoud Shadjareh, the chairman of the Islamic Human Rights Commission, said in an interview with the BBC that Muslims were being "demonized" as a result of such raids.

Home Secretary David Blunkett told the House of Commons: "While it is for the appropriate authorities to decide what action is taken against those individuals arrested today, the fact that such action was felt necessary is a timely reminder that the U.K. and its interests abroad remain a target."

Transportation security

In recent weeks, Eliza Manningham-Buller, the head of the MI5 domestic intelligence agency, and Sir John Stevens, head of the London police force, have warned that a major terrorist attack in Britain is inevitable. The initial focus in trying to thwart such an attack has been to increase security on subways, trains, stations and airports. The BBC reported that one of the men arrested yesterday was staying at a Holiday Inn hotel at Gatwick Airport.

Last month, MI5 announced that it was going to increase its ranks by 50 percent, adding 1,000 new intelligence officers. Moreover, security in London has been stepped up since the March 11 attacks on commuter trains in Madrid, which killed about 200 people and injured about 1,400.

Last week, police officers carrying automatic weapons appeared around key buildings in central London. An advertising campaign to alert subway riders to suspicious bags left on trains or in stations has also begun.

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