Armed guard on IRA bus bomb suspect

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The Independent Online

Crime Correspondent

An IRA terrorist was killed and a suspected accomplice was seriously injured when a bomb accidentally exploded on a double-decker bus in central London on Sunday evening, it emerged yesterday.

The home-made device, which is understood to contain about 4lb of Semtex high explosive, is believed to have gone off as a terrorist was priming it for detonation or when he dislodged a safety pin. Police believe the intended target was a site nearby in the West End.

Two people were arrested yesterday morning under the Prevention of Terrorism Act following information obtained from the site of the explosion.

Eight people were injured in the blast at 10.38pm on Sunday, which ripped the red number 171 bus to shreds as it reached the Aldwych.

The suspected terrorist, a young Irishman, was under armed police guard last night at St Thomas's Hospital, south London. He has a fractured skull and pelvis. Three other injured people - the bus driver and two passengers - were treated in hospital yesterday. The driver suffered chest injuries, while a couple, who were on holiday, needed intensive care and surgery for facial injuries.

The explosion was the third bombing incident in 10 days. On 9 February two people were killed and dozens injured by a bomb in Docklands, east London. Six days later police made safe a device containing about 5lb of Semtex found in a telephone box in central London.

The IRA yesterday claimed responsibility for the bus bomb and said it regretted the injury and loss of life.

The bus, which started in Catford, in south-east London, at about 9.50pm, exploded just minutes before it reached its destination in Holborn. Ten people were on board. The device is thought to have been brought on to the bus from an address in south-east London.

Forensic scientists have spent all day examining the wreckage of the bus for clues. They believe the bomb probably exploded in the lap of the dead man who was sitting in the middle of the vehicle on the bottom deck. His suspected accomplice is believed to have been several seats away from him. Public transport was used to avoid arousing police suspicion and to avoid road blocks, it is thought.

Commander John Grieve, head of the anti-terrorist branch, said at a press conference yesterday that the police believed the bomb was not meant to go off when it did without any warning.

He added: "The detonation was unintended at that point. The bus was not the intended target, we believe. It doesn't quite match the normal pattern of events surrounding this kind of attack."

The two arrests made yesterday morning are understood to have been made in south London. Scotland Yard refused to comment on speculation that the move was linked to letters that were found on the body in the wreckage of the bus.

Police were hoping to salvage video footage from on-board cameras which could contain images of the bombers. The information recorded on the electronic ticket machine could also offer police important evidence, if it remained intact.

Commander Grieve said police might also wish to study closed-circuit television cameras along the 171 route which might show the bomber, or bombers, on the bus.

According to one report last night the IRA said that it may now extend its bombing campaign to other mainland targets. A republican source told Reuters news agency: "If what is happening in London doesn't get the message home, the same signal will be sent by activity in other major British cities."