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London car bombs renew fears

Explosives are defused in two vehicles left in the theater district days before the anniversary of the transit blasts.

June 30, 2007|Janet Stobart | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — Police defused two car bombs packed with gasoline and nails Friday after they were found in the heart of the crowded theater and tourist district, generating renewed fears of terrorism and prompting a police clampdown that created near gridlock through much of the city center.

The failed attack, using what authorities said were a pair of explosives-packed Mercedeses, came two days after Gordon Brown became prime minister and barely a week before the second anniversary of the devastating July 7 suicide bombings on the London transit system.

The normally thriving Piccadilly Circus area, nearby Haymarket and Park Lane, a major artery, were closed for the day, leaving bewildered tourists and Londoners walking unfamiliar streets searching for their hotels, cars or the quickest alternative routes home.

The first bomb was found by officers and explosives experts called to the Tiger Tiger nightclub in the Haymarket at 1 a.m., after an ambulance crew treating a club-goer reported seeing smoke inside a parked silver Mercedes.

Investigators found a large number of nails, several containers of gasoline, and propane gas cylinders primed to explode in the car, said Deputy Assistant Commissioner Peter Clarke, head of Scotland Yard's counter-terrorism command.

"If the device had detonated, there could have been significant injury or loss of life," Clarke said. "The vehicle was parked in one of the busiest parts of central London in the early hours of Friday morning when many, many people were leaving nightclubs and other places after an evening out."

The Tiger Tiger is a three-level club with a capacity of more than 1,700. With a dance floor, restaurant and several bars, the club is popular with city workers and tourists who head to the West End. The dance floor is usually packed, particularly toward the end of the week, and Thursday was a crowded ladies' night.

By 11 a.m., the car had been loaded into a truck and taken away for forensic examination.

The second car, also packed with fuel, gas canisters and nails, was found in an underground impound lot about 2 p.m. on Park Lane in the district where the U.S. Embassy is located, Clarke said. But it had been ticketed for illegal parking nearly 12 hours earlier and towed to the lot from Cockspur Street just off the Haymarket, around the corner from where the first car was found.

The blue Mercedes, like the first car, was "potentially viable" as a bomb, and the two vehicles were "clearly linked," Clarke said. The discovery of the second bomb, he said, "is obviously troubling. It reinforces the need for the public to be alert."

Security officials combed the areas for clues and took away a mass of footage from scores of street surveillance cameras.

In the Haymarket area, the streets around Piccadilly Circus, with its heavy concentration of theaters, cinemas, shops, restaurants and offices, were eerily empty as people were barred from tourist attractions, workplaces and upscale apartments. Fleet Street and nearby Chancery Lane in East London were also closed for a time as police checked another suspicious car.

By late Friday evening, Park Lane had been reopened but the Haymarket remained cordoned off as police continued their investigation. Performances of "The Phantom of the Opera" and "The Last Confession" at two major theaters in the Haymarket were canceled.

Another police spokesman, Assistant Commissioner Tarique Ghaffur, said, "I'd like to reassure Londoners we're doing everything possible to make them safe. We're putting out extra patrols, and we've reviewed plans for the weekend."

Local media reported that the domestic security agency MI5 canceled leave for its front-line personnel and that security was being reviewed for high-profile events such as Wimbledon and a gay pride march through central London.

Brown, who took over from Tony Blair on Wednesday and formed his government Thursday, found that instead of discussing new policies or constitutional change, his first Cabinet meeting addressed an immediate terrorist threat.

"We are currently facing the most serious and sustained threat to our security from international terrorism," new Home Secretary Jacqui Smith said after the meeting.

The government's emergencies committee, known as Cobra, was to meet this morning.

President Bush, who was at his family's vacation home in Kennebunkport, Maine, was briefed twice Friday about the situation: early in the morning by national security advisor Stephen Hadley and about 2 p.m. by domestic security advisor Frances Townsend.

White House spokesman Tony Snow said there was no indication of a threat to the United States and that the terrorism alert status would not be raised.

"What we are doing is obviously suggesting that everybody be vigilant, but again, let me reiterate there's no specific or credible evidence of any kind of threat to the United States," Snow said.

"It's terrorism," he said, but added: "There's no established connection with any organization at this point."

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