TORONTO — A threat to blow up Toronto's extensive public transit system put the city into an unprecedented state of alert Monday as thousands of police, security agents and dogs patrolled the bus and subway systems while riders stayed away in large numbers.
Several hours after the time set by the threat for the explosions, nothing had happened, and police reported finding no trace of bombs or other devices.
A group identifying itself as the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Our Homeland sent a letter containing the threat to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police last Tuesday.
Police said the letter indicated that bombs would be detonated Monday morning in three locations along the 818-mile-long transit system unless authorities released three men charged with murder after a March 12 attack on the Turkish Embassy in Ottawa in which one man was killed.
Armenian Secret Army
The men who invaded the embassy and held a dozen people hostage were identified as members of the Armenian Secret Army, a group committed to violent acts against Turkish officials and facilities in retaliation for the deaths in Turkey of hundreds of thousands of Armenians in 1915.
Although government officials said use of the transit system was at or near the normal level of 1.5 million riders Monday, ticket takers, conductors and other bus and subway workers said business was well below average.
Also, the subway appeared relatively uncrowded Monday, and taxicab companies reported major increases in calls for service. Automobile traffic also was noticeably heavier.
"Are we busy? You bet we are," said a dispatcher for Diamond Taxi Co., the largest cab fleet in the city. "People are shying away from the TTC (Toronto Transit Commission), whether it be buses, subways or streetcars."
Question of Overreaction
Measures taken by police, which included assigning more than 5,000 men to security duties and the closure of the subway system for three hours early Monday, raised questions of possible overreaction and of providing unnecessary publicity to a terrorist group.
Metro Toronto Police Chief Jack Marks declined to furnish support for his assertion that the letter was more serious than the ordinary run of threats received in a given week.
TTC Chairman Julian Porter criticized the decision to give the affair a large public airing. Porter and other TTC and city officials made a point of riding the subway Monday to show that the system is safe and will not be affected by threats.
"I don't think our system can be held hostage in this way," Porter told reporters.
Police spokesmen acknowledged that a spate of bomb hoaxes developed over the weekend after Marks made the terrorist letter public.
'We Are Deeply Disturbed'
Leaders of Toronto's large Armenian community condemned the terrorists, saying that the solution to their grievances will not be found in violence--which, they added, damages efforts to gain public sympathy for their cause.
"We are deeply disturbed and outraged by the threat," said Levon Hasserjian, president of the Armenian Community of North York, a large Toronto suburb.
The police effort included officers riding every subway train, dogs sniffing for explosives in tunnels and bridges and spot checks of passengers carrying packages. Police also evacuated the main bus station and forced passengers off a subway train to check suspicious packages, and they blew up an unattended suitcase, its contents unknown, that was found on a bench in a bus shelter.