LONDON, (Reuters) – Police defused a car bomb packed with petrol, gas and nails in London’s busy theatre district on Friday, foiling an attack that could have killed many people and echoed a previous al Qaeda plot, police said.
Police also sealed off two more central London streets — Park Lane and Fleet Street — as they investigated other suspicious vehicles.
The bomb was found in a green Mercedes parked outside a night club shortly after 1 a.m. (midnight GMT), when hundreds of people were packed in the busy night-life district a half-a-mile (one km) from the prime minister’s Downing Street residence.
The police, alerted by ambulance workers who thought they saw smoke inside the car, defused the bomb, which Sky News said was rigged to detonate with a mobile-phone-triggered device.
Authorities said they did not know who left the bomb but they had begun a counter-terrorism investigation. “It is obvious that if the device had detonated there could have been significant injury or loss of life,” said Peter Clarke, the head of London’s anti-terrorist police. He said there were similarities between Friday’s incident and an earlier plot, uncovered in 2004, in which an al Qaeda militant planned to detonate gas-fuelled bombs inside limousines in London, among other targets.
It might also have echoes of another recent plot to attack targets including a high-profile nightclub, Clarke said.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown, facing a major challenge two days after succeeding Tony Blair, convened Britain’s top security committee, Cobra. “We are currently facing the most serious and sustained threat to our security from international terrorism,” Jacqui Smith, Brown’s new interior minister, said after the meeting.
A large area of central London around the scene remained sealed off hours after the bomb was found.
Television pictures showed a gas canister after it had been removed from the car. It was green and labelled “PATIO GAS”, which is readily available at hardware stores in Britain.
Explosives officers also found “significant quantities” of petrol and a large number of nails in the car, Clarke said.
Britain has experienced an increase in terrorism-related threats since the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States and since it joined forces with U.S. troops to invade Iraq in 2003, an event that provoked widespread domestic criticism.
Brown has pledged to respect Britain’s commitments in Iraq, although there has been speculation he may accelerate the British troop withdrawal.
Friday’s alerts followed a series of coordinated suicide bomb attacks on London’s transport network two years ago which killed 52 commuters, the first Islamist suicide bombings in western Europe. London has frequently been on edge since then.
Intelligence sources said they could not rule out an al Qaeda link to the car bomb, and said the danger of international Islamist terrorism was the main reason Britain’s threat level is placed at “severe”, the second highest rating. “We’re following up lots of leads and hopefully making some progress, but we’re still keeping quite an open mind,” a security source said. “The balance of probability does lie pretty strongly with international terrorism,” the official said, referring to al Qaeda-inspired radical Islamism.
But the source added: “Until we feel that we know who’s responsible, we’re not going to start pointing the finger.”
Brown said the incident showed the need for vigilance. “The first duty of a government is the security of the people and as the police and security services have said on so many occasions, we face a serious and continued security threat to our country,” he told reporters.
Security around parliament was stepped up, with police body-searching drivers of vehicles entering the compound.