BRITISH ANTI-TERRORIST officers arrested nine men in dawn raids Thursday in connection with the botched July 21 bomb attacks on London’s transit system as police warned of “a race against time” to hunt down the bombers.
And the dragnet in the Sharm El Sheikh terror attacks widened Thursday as police detained at least 25 people in the desert mountains around the Red Sea resort and searching for a green pick-up truck that may have been the getaway vehicle for some attackers.
With three of the suspected attackers still at large, Britain has launched its biggest police operation since World War II, flooding the city with thousands of officers to reassure the public while also warning of more possible attacks.
“There are many thousands of police officers trying to ensure the safety of Londoners,” said Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair â€” three weeks to the day after the July 7 attacks that killed 56 people, including four suicide bombers.
He said it was a “a race against time” to find the suspected bombers.
“It does remain possible that those at large will strike again,” he added. “It does also remain possible that there are other cells who are capable and intent on striking again.” Blair described the operation as “the greatest operational challenge that the Metropolitan Police service has faced since the Second World War. And I genuinely believe that to be the case.” British Transport Police said it had scrambled the “largest ever deployment of police” to patrol the country’s rail network.
“It is a time of heightened tension, and we have this deployment of police to give reassurance and deterrence,” said spokesman Simon Lubin. He declined to say how many officers had been deployed.
Scotland Yard said the nine men were arrested under the Terrorism Act at two properties in the neighbourhood of Tooting, south London, early Thursday. They were being held in a central London police station.
The arrests bring to 20 the number of people police have in custody, including one of the alleged bombers.
One of the four men suspected of carrying out the failed attacks July 21 was arrested in Birmingham, central England, on Wednesday. Yasin Hassan Omar, 24, was being questioned at a top security police station in London.
Blair said the botched attacks, in which four bombs only partially detonated on three subway trains and a central London bus, were not a sign the terrorists had been weakened in any way.
“This is not the B team. These weren’t the amateurs. They made a mistake. They only made one mistake, and we’re very, very lucky,” he said.
Blair said he was confident that police would find the bombers â€” as well as whoever backed them.
“The carnage that would have occurred had those bombs gone off would have at least been equivalent of those on July 7, and therefore it is absolutely imperative that we find those responsible,” Blair said.
Residents in Tooting said police had arrested three Turkish men who worked at and lived above a fast-food restaurant selling halal burgers.
The restaurant owner, who gave his name as Ali, declined to identify the men but said they were aged about 26, 30 and 40. The oldest man had worked for him for eight years, and the other two had started about two months ago, he said.
Six other men were arrested from a property in nearby Garratt Terrace, a street opposite the Tooting Broadway subway station.
“There were about a dozen armed police officers shouting `Come on out or we’ll send the dogs in.’ And then I saw one large, older-looking Asian man being led out. He was dressed in a white gown or robe,” said local resident Ben Astbury, 25, who watched the raid from his house in Garratt Lane.
“After that I saw about three other men but I couldn’t see clearly what they looked like. My girlfriend then saw two more.” Britain is home to many immigrants from the South Asian countries of Pakistan and India, among others.
Omar, a Somali citizen with British residency, was arrested in a dramatic raid by dozens of anti-terrorist police and bomb disposal experts on Wednesday in Birmingham, Britain’s second-largest city. Omar is suspected of trying to blow up the Warren Street subway station on July 21.
ABC News, meanwhile, reported that British authorities investigating the July 7 attack had found 12 bombs and four improvised detonators in the trunk of the car of one of the suspected suicide bombers 56 kilometres outside of London five days after the deadly explosions.
The network broadcast photos â€” including one of a glass bottle apparently packed with explosives and covered in nails that could be used as shrapnel â€” and said they provided important clues about who was behind the attacks.
Other raids were carried out Wednesday in south London’s Stockwell district, where officers arrested three women on suspicion of “harbouring offenders.” Detectives believe the man who tried to bomb a train near the Shepherd’s Bush subway station on July 21 may have lived there.
Ali Reid, 37, who lives in the Stockwell apartment block that was raided, said he recognised the suspect from images released by police.
“I know the face. I used to see him coming and going,” he said. Neighbours said he had three young children and lived with relatives.
A second July 21 suspect has been identified as Muktar Said Ibrahim, 27, also known as Muktar Mohammed Said. He came to Britain in 1990 from Eritrea, his family said. He was granted residency in 1992 and British citizenship in September 2004, the Home Office said.
‘Sinai’s new generation of militants’
Over the past two days, police, with the help of bedouin guides, have been scouring the rough terrain outside the beach resort on the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula, where authorities fear a new generation of militants may be operating.
The 25 men were arrested late Wednesday and early Tuesday on suspicion of being involved in the attacks, which were Egypt’s deadliest ever, said two security officials, who both declined to be identified because the release of the information had not been authorised.
Among the 25 was an Egyptian bureaucrat originally from the Nile Delta region of Menoufia. who worked in a government office in Sharm and went into hiding immediately after the string of explosions that rocked the resort before dawn on Saturday, the officials said. He was arrested in the resort Wednesday, they said.
No details were available on what role police believe the arrested men may have played in the attacks.
Police are also searching for a green pick-up truck in northern Sinai that may have been the getaway vehicle for some of the attackers, who unleashed two car bombs and a third explosion, levelling the lobby of a luxury hotel and ripping through a beach promenade and a neighbourhood full of Egyptian workers.
Police have also named at least 15 people â€” including Bedouin tribesmen and other Egyptians â€” they are hunting for and suspect of playing a role in the Sharm and who have links to last October’s attack on two other Sinai resorts farther north that killed 34 people.
Investigators have been focusing on possible links between the Sharm bombings and the October attacks in Taba and Ras Shitan, further north along the Sinai’s west coast. They identified an Egyptian man with militant links who went into hiding after the Taba bombings as a suspected suicide bomber in the Sharm attack.
Authorities are worried new militants have cropped up in the Sinai Peninsula, distant from the Nile Valley where the government put down an extremist insurgency in the Sinai.
Investigators have said they’re looking into international links, including funding, for cells in the Sinai, particularly in light of other terror attacks using similar techniques around the world, such as this months’ explosions against public transportation in London.
At least 300 other people have been taken in for questioning on the Sharm attacks but are not believed to have played any role.
Authorities were still trying to determine the final death toll from the blasts. The Egyptian health ministry has said 64 people have been confirmed dead.
But besides those victims, there are 11 bags containing body parts, and authorities are still working to determine how many additional dead they include. Hospital officials in Sharm have previous said they believe 88 people were killed.
Saeed Abdel Fattah, manager of the Sharm El Sheikh International Hospital where the victims were taken, said among the 64 confirmed dead by the Egyptian health ministry are 38 Egyptians, five Italians, four Turks, one American and one Czech. At least 15 people are unidentified.
The British government confirmed Thursday that two Britons were killed and eight missing.
The wife of one of the confirmed Turkish victims died Thursday in an Ankara hospital were she was flown for treatment of wounds in the attack, the hospital said. Her death brought the number of Turkish victims to five.
Italy’s foreign ministry has also said four Italians are missing and feared dead.