London blasts a sober reminder

Bombs misfire, but popping sound of detonators sends lunchtime transit passengers fleeing in panic

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Date: Friday, July 22, 2005

LONDON - The city of London received a grim message Thursday - it remains a new front line in the war on terror.

In a shockingly similar but bloodless repeat of attacks exactly two weeks earlier, bombers struck three subway cars and a bus here Thursday. The synchronized, lunchtime blasts caused no injuries but sent travelers screaming in panic from the London Underground and one of the city's trademark double-decker buses. The July 7 mass-transit attacks killed 56 and injured 700.

Senior police officials and witnesses told The New York Times that Thursday's bombs failed to explode, and that the bombers then abandoned their backpacks and fled the scene. The officials said it was only the detonators on the devices that went off, making sounds like firecrackers.

"The intention must have been to kill," Metropolitan Police Commissioner Ian Blair said at a news conference.

The similarities between the blasts were striking enough to create both physical disruptions - including suspension of three subway lines for several hours - and psychological chills.

Eyewitnesses Thursday reported men on the subways and bus fiddling with knapsacks, one of which exploded as he held it, an eerie reminder of the images captured on closed-circuit television of the four July 7 bombers walking through a rail station with knapsacks of explosives on their backs.

Police arrested one man near the prime minister's residence and another - who was later released - near the Warren Street subway station, The Associated Press reported.

As of Thursday night, no one had claimed responsibility for the blasts. Ian Blair urged citizens against "smearing" any ethnic or religious group. Crimes against Muslims have surged since the July 7 attacks, which are blamed on three Britons of Pakistani origin and a Jamaica native.

Blair said investigators didn't know if the two attacks were connected but added that forensic evidence left at the scene could provide a "significant" break.

NBC News reported that British authorities told their U.S. counterparts that backpacks and explosives used Thursday were identical to those in the July 7 attacks. And the British Broadcasting Corp. reported "speculation" that the devices were so similar they may even have been part of the same batch.

Investigators have found vast quantities of explosives at two sites north of London that they believe are connected to the July 7 bombings and were expected to compare them with Thursday's bombs.

Many terror experts Thursday said they doubted the attacks were the work of copycats, saying they were too carefully coordinated and came too soon. However, Robert Ayers, a security and intelligence expert at London's prestigious Chatham House think tank, said, "I think you'll find these folks have terrorist associations, but not the same level of expertise" as the first bombers, given that the bombs didn't properly explode.

Eyewitnesses said the blasts merely smoked and popped.

"We smelled smoke. It was like something was burning," Losiane Mohellavi, 35, who was traveling in a subway car near the Warren Street station, told reporters. "Everyone was panicking, and people were screaming. ... I am still shaking."

Sky News quoted other passengers on the train nearing Warren Street as saying they saw a man carrying a knapsack that suddenly exploded. "The man then made an exclamation as if something had gone wrong" and dashed away, passenger Ivan McCracken said another subway rider had told him.

Passengers unsuccessfully tried to jump a man who appeared to have a knapsack at the Oval Station in south London, and a third man is believed to have fled the scene of the blast at Shepherd's Bush, British media reported.

A blast also occurred on the top deck of a No. 26 bus on Hackney Road in east London. Police reportedly found the remains of a knapsack at the site.

Screaming travelers fled the three Underground stations in such a rush that some left their shoes. Police locked down several areas of central London, evacuating commercial buildings as they fanned through streets near the bomb sites with explosive-sniffing dogs.

Traffic snarled, and many passengers were stranded for hours. Some transit drivers initially refused to go to work, transportation officials said.

Prime Minister Tony Blair urged a stiff upper lip and a return to normal routines. "We know why these things are done; they are done to scare people," he said at a news conference before holding an emergency cabinet meeting.

In Washington, President Bush said the terrorists were "trying to shake our will. And they're trying to create vacuums in which their ideology can move." Meanwhile, U.S. and British authorities investigating the July 7 attacks searched for information on Haroon Rashid Aswat, a Pakistani man allegedly connected to a foiled plot to create a terrorist training camp in Bly, Ore.

Aswat's cellphone received as many as 20 calls from several of the bombers, said intelligence and law enforcement officials, one of whom said the last call was made in London the night before the July 7 bombings.