LONDON (Reuters) -British police said on Saturday they had arrested 16 men in two separate anti-terrorism operations just three weeks after uncovering a suspected plot to bring down U.S.-bound airliners over the Atlantic.
Fourteen of the men were held in London in an operation that a police source said focused on suspected “training, recruitment and encouraging others to take part in terrorist activity.”
Anti-terrorist police in Manchester arrested two men early on Saturday and were carrying out three searches but this was not linked to the London arrests, police there said.
The BBC said 12 of the London arrests were made at or near a Chinese restaurant in south London that police in riot gear raided on Friday night, questioning diners for hours and taking some away in handcuffs.
The BBC said the probe may be linked to alleged “training camps” in Britain, saying there had been reports of militants getting together for adventure training as a means to develop closer ties.
The arrests came soon after the head of London police’s anti-terrorist branch, Peter Clarke, said in a television interview that police were keeping tabs on thousands of British Muslims who they suspect may be involved in or support terrorism — higher than previous official estimates.
Police said the 14 men held in south and east London on Friday night and early Saturday morning were arrested in a “pre-planned, intelligence-led operation.”
The men were suspected of “the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism,” and were being held at a central London police station, police said.
They said the operation was not related to the arrests of more than 20 people on August 9-10 in connection with an alleged plot by a group of British Muslims to blow up U.S.-bound airliners using liquid explosives.
Nor were they related to the July 7 attacks last year when four British Islamist suicide bombers killed 52 people in rush-hour attacks on London transport, they said.
The police said the arrests followed many months of surveillance and investigation in a joint operation involving the police anti-terrorist branch and the security service.
Searches were being carried out at houses in south, east and north London, they said.
The BBC said the Chinese restaurant was full of people, including children, when police arrived on Friday night.
The restaurant’s owner, Madi Blyani, told the BBC up to 60 officers entered the restaurant, which is popular with Muslims.
“They suddenly came inside because they were suspicious of some of the customers. … They talked to them (for) more than one hour, two hours, and they arrested some of them. So it was obviously surprising for me, my staff, for everyone,” he said.
Police could be seen putting personal items into evidence bags and they removed six cars parked nearby, the BBC said.
Interior minister John Reid had been kept fully informed about the operation, a ministry spokeswoman said.
Eleven British Muslims have been charged with conspiracy to murder and planning acts of terrorism over the suspected plot to blow up airliners over the Atlantic.
Four people are accused of lesser offences and five others are still being questioned but have not been charged.