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Britain: London On High Alert Following Terror Warnings, Disaster Drill

  • Jan Jun

London is on high alert following statements from top officials about the growing possibility of terrorist attacks on the British capital. As the second anniversary of 11 September approaches, authorities in Britain are evaluating a major exercise staged to test the emergency services' response to just such an attack. What did the city learn about its preparedness?

London, 9 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Police with machine guns patrol London's streets. There are marksmen on the rooftops of important buildings. And there is an unusually large number of armed police in and around the city's airports.

All this follows last week's statement by Britain's most senior police officer, John Steven, that the Al-Qaeda terrorist network is recruiting in Britain and that an attack in the country is -- as he put it -- "probably inevitable."

British Home Secretary (Interior Minister) David Blunkett also called a suicide terrorist attack in London a "logical conclusion" to events around the world since 11 September 2001.

Britain's emergency services are now evaluating the first major live exercise to test the city's response to such a disaster -- in this case, a chemical attack by terrorists in the city's vast subway system. The drill was staged in and around a key station in the heart of London's financial district on 7 September. A large part of the city was cordoned off and some 500 firefighters, ambulance crews, and special police units took part.

Mike Bowron is assistant commissioner of the City of London Police. In a telephone interview yesterday with RFE/RL, he said the exercise appeared to go well.

"Some early conclusions are that it was a success," Bowron said. "However, I'd like to spend a few more days listening to what our officers' and fire crews' and ambulance crews' feedback is, because the prime purpose of the exercise was to test some new equipment and some new techniques in very arduous, very difficult conditions. And we'd like to hear from all of those officers [about] whether they have positive or negative comments. And we can then edit their comments together."

In the exercise, some 50 police cadets played victims of a chemical attack on an underground train. The train was stopped in a tunnel just outside a subway station. The "victims" were evacuated and led to the surface with the help of some 80 members of the Metropolitan Police, City of London Police, and British Transport Police, all of whom were dressed in protective suits.

Special inflatable decontamination shower units were tested, and some "victims" were transported to London's University College Hospital to gauge the efficiency of medical procedures.

Despite criticism in the media, such as in "The Times" daily, that many of the procedures appeared to take too long, Bowron defends the exercise and says critics are missing the point.

"I've got to say that [the exercise] was not choreographed in the way that some journalists think or expected. As I say, the prime purpose was about getting specialist equipment to the scene of an incident -- in this case, it was a mock chemical attack on the tube [subway]," Bowron said.

The London drill was the first event to include closing public areas in London, but there have been other exercises, including five tests of the National Health Service's ability to cope with casualties.

Bowron said the equipment being tested in the drill included new protective clothing, including airtight suits for the fire brigade, chemical detection units, and decontamination equipment.

"So, primarily, that was why we were running the exercise, not necessarily to test response time. However, the lessons learned from -- I think it was in 1995 -- [the subway gas attack] in Japan were that the first responders there rushed to the scene and were all -- I think most, if not all -- killed. And that's something we would obviously like to avoid -- turning up in these circumstances without proper equipment or proper risk assessment," Bowron said.

London Mayor Ken Livingstone said the threat from terrorism remains what he called "real and serious." He said the drill "is not alarmist, nor a response to any specific threat." But he said there are many practical lessons the city can learn from such an exercise.

"The Sunday Times" reports that a secret government plan -- called Operation Sassoon -- envisages the large-scale evacuation of London's population into "rest and reception areas" in the countryside should a terrorist attack take place or be considered imminent.

Meanwhile, British police say they are monitoring a radical Muslim group called Al-Muhajiroun that is planning conferences in four British cities to honor the 11 September hijackers. Posters around the city refer to them as the "Magnificent 19."

Al-Muhajiroun's leader, Sheikh Omar Bakri Muhammad, is based in London, where his home has been raided by police. Some 13 other foreigners, including radical Muslim cleric Abu Quateda, have been declared "suspected international terrorists" and are being held without charge under a new antiterrorism law.