London attack puts world on alert

 

Major capitals around the world were on the highest state of security alert last night following yesterday's London bombings, which British prime minister Tony Blair says were clearly timed to coincide with the opening of the G8 summit at Gleneagles. Frank Millar, London Editor, reports

Over 50 people were belived to have died, with the toll expected to rise following four no-warning bomb attacks on London's transport network which left more than 700 injured, almost 100 of them described last night as serious. Doctors said many of those who survived the attacks would face multiple surgery.

British anti-terrorist police are working on the assumption that the atrocity was committed by an Islamic group, possibly linked to al-Qaeda. An unverifiable claim of responsibility was posted on an al-Qaeda linked website. "Britain is now burning with fear, terror and panic," a message claimed.

In fact, emergency services and ordinary people reacted with a mixture of professionalism and stoicism. The city's transport system was shut down immediately and a practised emergency action plan was implemented.

As part of it, Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair made mid-morning broadcasts urging people in London to remain where they were and others not to travel to the city.

Last night, all West End theatres were closed. There was evidence of the city's famed wartime spirit as the Salvation Army opened three of its churches where people could sleep if they could not get home. Hotels also provided stranded commuters with blankets and shower facilities throughout the day. The Thames clipper services ran a free service throughout the evening.

Mr Blair was forced to leave Gleneagles to chair a meeting of the cabinet's Cobra emergency co-ordinating committee in Downing Street.

President Mary McAleese led Irish condemnation of the attacks. In a message to Queen Elizabeth, she expressed sympathy on behalf of the Irish people. Taoiseach Bertie Ahern deplored what he called "wanton violence" against the innocent which would not influence how G8 did its business.

While not precisely simultaneous, the four attacks within the hour - three targeted at the Underground, one on a double-decker bus - evoked memories of the Madrid train bombings.

Seven people died immediately in the first blast, on a train 100 yards from Liverpool Street station at 8.51am. Five minutes later, 21 people died in the worst single bombing, which was on an underground train between Russell Square and King's Cross stations.

At 9.17am, seven people met their deaths in a blast on a train at Edgware Road Underground station and 30 minutes later, at least two people died instantly when a blast ripped the roof off a number 30 bus at Tavistock Place.

Before flying back to Scotland, however, Mr Blair vowed the perpetrators would not succeed in changing or dividing the British people. In a televised statement from Number 10 he said: "It is through terrorism that the people that have committed these terrible acts express their values and it is right at this moment that we demonstrate ours.

"I think we all know what they are trying to do. They are trying to use the slaughter of innocent people to cow us, to frighten us out of doing the things that we want to do, trying to stop us from going about our business as we are entitled to do, and they should not and must not succeed."

The London Underground network was not expected to re-open until this morning. Buses were running again last night in central London and rail services appeared to be operating from most mainline train stations.

Heathrow Airport was operating normally although delays were inevitable as many passengers had difficulty reaching the airport. Eurostar's London to Paris rail service was running although passengers from the continent were being advised not to travel. Regular security checks were carried out on all buses, at bus stations and garages.

Questions about the absence of any intelligence alerting authorities to yesterday's attacks, the lowering of the official threat assessment and about the resourcing and efficiency of the security services, were effectively put on hold as opposition leaders Michael Howard and Charles Kennedy rallied behind Mr Blair's robust response to the bombers.

Queen Elizabeth led the British people in an open message expressing her sympathy to all those affected and the relatives of those killed and injured.

Pope Benedict said the attacks were "barbaric acts against humanity" in a message to the Archbishop of Westminster Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor.

At Gleneagles, US president George Bush said there was "an incredibly vivid contrast" between the work at the G8 to alleviate poverty and the "evil" of those wanting to kill.