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Two Suspects Arrested in London Blast

February 20, 1996|Wm. D. MONTALBANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONDON — Police arrested two suspected terrorists here Monday in the aftermath of an Irish Republican Army bus bombing that killed one person, injured eight and brought dread back to the streets of this gridlocked capital.

As the workweek started, tens of thousands of commuters sought to find a way to work after police sealed off a swath of central London--with the bombed carcass of the No. 171 red double-decker bus as its epicenter.

Preliminary indications were that the bomb had detonated accidentally Sunday night, killing the man who was carrying it and wounding a second suspected terrorist; the latter was under armed guard at a hospital. The seven other injured included the bus driver and an engaged couple on a getaway weekend.

Scotland Yard had little to say about the two suspects jailed on security charges, not even identifying them. Under legislation adopted during the IRA's 25-year war against British rule in Northern Ireland, terrorist suspects may be held for 48 hours without charge.

The IRA acknowledged responsibility for the blast Monday and had a curt message for city dwellers in Britain: More to come.

The attack--the third terrorist incident in London in 10 days--rattled nerves in the capital. When a businessman forgot his briefcase on a bus Monday morning, police were immediately called and rumors circulated that they had defused a bomb. A secretary called for help after hearing a threatening message on her office answering machine. Police arrived in flak jackets to conclude that it was only a drunk bragging about a soccer victory.

In Washington on Monday, President Clinton joined in public condemnation of the bus bombing and similar "cowardly acts of terrorism." The IRA ended a 17-month cease-fire Feb. 9 with a bomb blast in the Docklands area of London that killed two people and injured several dozen. On Thursday, police disarmed a bomb later described as 11 pounds of Semtex plastic explosive found in a phone booth in the theater district.

Police found a gun at the bomb site Monday as part of a painstaking investigation that included review of film from security cameras and analysis of the ticket machine from the bus, which might enable them to determine where the terrorists boarded.

"The bus was not the intended target," said Scotland Yard anti-terrorist Commander John Grieve. IRA bombers often use public transport for its anonymity and as a way past security checks.

Police theorize that the bomb was intended for placement in London's West End but exploded accidentally, killing its bearer and crushing the skull and pelvis of an accomplice. "We are treating this man as one of the bombers," an anti-terrorist source told British reporters.

Unintentional explosions, sardonically known as "own goals" in soccer-crazy Britain, are not uncommon. Frank Ryan and Patricia Beck blew themselves up in November 1991 while planting a bomb intended to explode at a military band concert.

IRA practice, followed in the giant Docklands blast and the stillborn bomb Thursday, is to advise through a coded message that an explosion is imminent.

No call came Sunday, however, triggering immediate speculation of an accidental explosion. On Monday, the IRA called the office of the BBC in Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, to say as much: "The bomb which exploded last night was one of our devices. We can say at this stage that we regret the loss of life and injuries which occurred."

Later, a leading IRA source issued a chilling warning.

"If what is happening in London doesn't get the message home, the same signal will be sent by activity in other major British cities," the source told the British news agency Reuters.

After 25 years of violence, the IRA announced a cease-fire effective Sept. 1, 1994. It announced an end to the cease-fire shortly before the Feb. 9 blast, blaming the British government for its failure to get peace talks started.

"The peace process is over," Gerry Adams, the president of Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing, told Irish Radio on Monday. "What we have to do is rebuild it. It takes a lot of resilience at a personal and political level. It means all of us taking risks."

For his part, British Prime Minister John Major pledged to continue the elusive search for peace in Northern Ireland and conferred anew Monday with Irish Prime Minister John Bruton.

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