Accessibility links

Breaking News

U.K.: Britain On Alert Against Terrorist Attacks

With British troops taking part in the war in Iraq, the government in London says it is aware of an increased likelihood of a terrorist attack. Home Secretary David Blunkett made a special announcement to parliament last week, and several government departments are reportedly working around the clock to implement special security measures.

London, 28 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Britain is taking special precautions against possible terrorist attacks, as its troops play a prominent role in the war in Iraq.

On the streets of the capital London, special police units -- the first of a promised 1,500 extra officers -- are visible around the most prominent landmarks and government buildings.

Police around the country have been given extra powers of arrest to deal with suspected terrorists and violent demonstrations. London's fire brigades are being issued with special protective suits, and the territorial army reserves have been exercising civil-defense emergencies in several cities.

The authorities have also issued special instructions to the largest companies and property owners on what preparations they should make to safeguard against a terrorist attack. There is even a special "awareness" advertisement issued by the police and now being played on television and radio. The ad features a woman representing a "typical" member of the general public. The voice is a spokesman for the Metropolitan Police: "This woman is working for the Antiterrorist Squad. She just does not know it yet. One day soon, she will come across something that makes her suspicious -- suspicious that someone may be a terrorist or is involved in helping terrorists. She'll call the Antiterrorist Hotline, and she will save lives. She, like you, is a member of the public. So, if any one of you sees anything that leads you to suspect a terrorist or any terrorist activity, then do not hesitate. Call the free, confidential Antiterrorist Hotline on 0800-789-321 -- that is 0800-789-321. Otherwise, your silence could be deadly. The Metropolitan Police working for safer London."

In an announcement to parliament on 20 March 20, Home Secretary David Blunkett said the risk of a terrorist attack is higher than usual. He said his department is taking every feasible precautionary measure to protect British citizens both home and abroad.

The awareness campaign, however, is not without its critics. Some say the government is overdoing it and causing unnecessary panic, especially with warnings that people purchase extra provisions of batteries, food, and bottled water. Newspapers report that sales of bottled water, for example, have risen fourfold in recent days.

The measures have the full backing of the political opposition. David Cameron, a member of the parliamentary Home Affairs Committee, explained: "I think we need to raise our level of preparedness, because we live in a dangerous and difficult time, and there clearly is a level of threat against this country which we have not seen for many years."

But opposition politicians do criticize the way in which Britain's emergency services are organized. Cameron pointed to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security as an effective example of how government departments can be reorganized to meet a perceived threat of terrorism. "In the United States now you have a cabinet minister with specific responsibility for homeland [security]. Here, it seems to be divided between very many different ministers: ministers for local government, who are responsible for some of the civil contingencies; ministers for health, who are responsible for making sure we have adequate vaccines; ministers for the Home Department, who are responsible for the police. I do think we need someone to draw all this together, someone who can work all the time on making sure that our preparations and preparedness for a major terrorist attack on United Kingdom are in place. I am not yet convinced that we have done enough," Cameron said.

As if to prove the antiterrorist measures are effective, British police in the city of Derby reported yesterday that eight men of Middle Eastern origin had been arrested in early-morning raids and were being questioned under the Terrorism Act of 2000.