City police tighten security ring

Armed road blocks multiply amid growing fears of an IRA Christmas bomb campaign
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On London Wall in the heart of the capital's financial centre, seven officers from the City of London Police's armed response unit are screening vehicles at a road block. Two of them are have semi-automatic rifles. One has a German Shepherdstraining at the leash.

Around the corner, at one of the eight entry points on the City's "ring of steel" security cordon, a uniformed officer flags down a light blue Ford Transit van. The driver fumbles nervously with some bright pink invoice papers and gives his name, destination and employer. On a mast above him are two cameras, one trained on his number plate, the other on his passenger seat. After about 45 seconds he has moved on.

Such scenes have been commonplace in the square mile of the City this week as security forces are on full alert amid growing fears of an IRA Christmas bombing campaign. Yesterday, the police presence was particularly apparent. At a number of entry points, officers were stopping traffic regularly and armed roadblocks were set up at random.

"Since the end of the cease-fire in February, we have to take the threat of a terrorist attack seriously and at the moment I perceive that threat to be very high," Commander Judy Davison of City of London Police said. "The City is a vulnerable place and the prevention of terrorism is our number one priority."

The security cordon was erected in July 1993 in response to the IRA bomb in Bishopsgate which triggered one of the highest-profile police operations in Britain for decades. The road checks are only a small part of the City of London Police's security initiative, which has had a considerable effect on the quality of life for residents and workers. Since 1993 there has been a 16 per cent drop in all types of crime. At the same time, traffic levels have been reduced and the streets are safer to cross and less filled with exhaust fumes.

The weapons employed against terrorism are an effective mixture of camera technology and liaison with the local community. At entry points, 27 cameras photograph the number plate of every vehicle and the face of every driver. Another 13 snap vehicles leaving the City and 47 at key points enable police to track suspicious vehicles.

There are also 1,265 private cameras manned by security guards ready to alert police at the slightest hint of danger. This Camera Watch scheme came into being after a private closed circuit television camera detected the Bishopsgate bombers walking towards the Bank of England after parking the truck packed full of explosives. "We suddenly realised we could have access to hundreds more cameras if we contacted these businesses and worked with them," Chief Inspector Chris Wheeler, the force's crime prevention officer, said.

This month, the Corporation of London announced that it would extend the ring of steel early next year to cover 75 per cent of the city. In February work will begin on installing a new system enabling cameras not only to read vehicle number plates but to check them against other data within four seconds.

Chief Superintendent Paul Eskriett, head of operational support for the force, says that there is no room for complacency: "The terrorist has many advantages and we'll never be able to make the City 100 per cent secure. But we have the advantage of a relationship with the local community which we've built up over a period of time ... Our job is to stop anyone from getting killed and I hope we can continue to do that."