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U.K.: Londoners Brace For Possible Terrorist Attacks With Heavy Security Presence

In the wake of last week's deadly bombings in Madrid, authorities in Britain say it is inevitable that the country will suffer a similar attack.

London, 19 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- London is on high alert for terrorist attacks, following last week's bombings in Madrid and reputed Al-Qaeda warnings that Britain will be among its next targets.

Helicopters routinely fly overhead, police carrying machine guns patrol the streets, and plainclothes antiterrorist police are said to be on duty on the public transport system around the clock, with the authority to search passengers at random.

"If it happens, it happens. I hope it never does, but it's one of those things that may happen."
New posters in subway trains and on buses warn the public to report any suspicious packages. All trash cans have been removed from subway stations because they could hide bombs. Several thousand cameras are already placed around the city to monitor traffic and the movement of pedestrians and could be used to detect any suspicious activity.

London Mayor Ken Livingstone says it would be "miraculous" if the capital manages to avoid a major terrorist attack. The city's top policeman, Metropolitan Police Commissioner John Stevens, said it is "inconceivable" to believe that London will not witness a terrorist attack.

The bombings in Madrid, which killed more than 200 people, are seen by many as a consequence of Spain's firm support for the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Britain is Washington's strongest ally in Iraq.

London Police Commissioner Stevens is warning of the danger of bombs placed in unattended backpacks, similar to those used in Madrid.

"We are talking about buses, and we are talking about anything of suspicion that is seen in clubs, nightclubs and the like. This is a general request for people to be alert, to get in touch with the police. Do not worry about ringing up the police if you see something suspicious," Stevens said.

The warnings come amid reports that Al-Qaeda has issued a statement targeting Britain, Australia, and Saudi Arabia for its next attacks. British Prime Minister Tony Blair reiterated in parliament that the country will not yield to terrorist threats.

"The fact is there is no way appeasing these people. They have no cause that any negotiations can take place upon. [Al-Qaeda] have made it absolutely clear -- as they did in that chilling statement they put out a few days ago -- where they said: 'You love life, we love death.' Unfortunately, that is the nature of the people we are dealing with, and that is why we have to defeat them," Blair said.

Blair was joined by the leader of the opposition, Michael Howard, who pledged the full support of his Conservative Party.

"There is no such thing as an opt-out from the war on terror," Howard said.

The threat of a terrorist attack is making Londoners nervous as they travel amid the presence of hundreds of additional police officers in train and subway stations across the city.

Jerry and Kate Thornton admit that they are afraid to travel at the moment.

"Yes, we would be afraid to travel around London at the moment," Kate said.

Jerry concurred. "Oh, God, yeah. Yeah, Yeah. The same, the same, indeed."

Twenty-four-year-old Poornima Bhartiya commutes to London every day on its dense network of suburban trains, and then changes to the London subway system.

"Well, the only thing I am worried about is the London Underground [subway system] and the British Rail. That is the only time. I mean, first they can't sort their lives out in terms of the amount of delays there are. Imagine if we were stuck under a tunnel, or stuck in the middle of nowhere, and there is a bomb, and there is nowhere to go. That's the only thing I worry about. But other than that -- no, I do not really care," Bhartiya said.

Some observers note that while Britons are worried, they also tend to be philosophical about the dangers, given their experiences with IRA terrorists in the 1970s and '80s.

Andy Richardson is 31 years old and drives a bus for a living. He says he tries not to think about the dangers.

"It is worrying a bit, but I drive a bus, so I've got to live with [the threat] every day, so we'll see. If it happens, it happens. I hope it never does, but it's one of those things that may happen," Richardson said.

Yesterday, London Police Commissioner Stevens spoke of a link between Britain and the bomb attacks in Madrid. He alleges that one of the suspects in the Madrid bombings, Jamal Zougam, had been in touch with a British Muslim terrorist cell beforehand to obtain financing and logistics advice.

Meanwhile, leaders of Britain's community of 2.5 million Muslims are preparing to hold a large rally in London to show their opposition to terrorism.