Despite being given a one-hour warning that bombs would explode at the airport, police did not close Heathrow's northern runway even after it was targeted by mortar bombs that failed to go off.
Commander David Tucker, head of Scotland Yard's anti-terrorist branch, gave no reason for the delay last night but Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, said he would receive a report 'to see what lessons can be learnt'.
A British Airways jet to Copenhagen used the runway just two minutes before the attack was launched from the car park of the Forte Excelsior Hotel, about 400 metres away, at 5.57pm. Aircraft continued to take off every five minutes until 6.28pm.
No one was injured in the attack involving mortar bombs which were described by police as 'home made' devices. However, flights were disrupted and Terminal One was closed as bomb disposal experts searched for the three remaining devices - all of which failed to explode. The hunt continued into the early hours today.
Commander Tucker said no aircraft had been in the area at the time and added: 'If the mortars had exploded they would have caused very considerable damage.' He refused to say why the north runway had stayed open so long.
Almost an hour before the attack, unspecific coded warnings were telephoned to six news organisations and the Heathrow switchboard. Mike Roberts, Heathrow's managing director, said it would have been impossible to clear the airport. 'We receive thousands of calls a year. We have 20,000 people working here and if we had cleared the area . . . possibly some of the evacuees would have been sent to the Excelsior Hotel (an evacuation point) as the attack was taking place.'
News of the bombing was broken to the House of Commons by Mr Howard as MPs debated the annual renewal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act. He was quick to use the incident to highlight differences between Labour and the Tories over provisions in the Act.
After the renewal vote, which was passed by 86 votes, he said: 'If it was meant to send a signal to the House of Commons, I think it is a pity that the House of Commons was unable to give a united response because the Labour Party did not come into the lobby with us to support the renewal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act.'
The attack was launched from the open hatchback of a red Nissan Micra car in the Excelsior car park close to the A4 Bath Road on the outskirts of west London. The force of the launch, from five 6ft-long tubes, caused about 10 vehicles parked near by to catch fire.
The incident will be viewed not just as an expression of republican displeasure at the renewal of the Act but also, and more importantly, as an attempt to demand political concessions from the Government. It will give added significance to Anglo- Irish talks due to be held at Downing Street today.
As the most 'spectacular' IRA incident in Britain since the signing of the Downing Street declaration in December, it was apparently designed to signal the IRA's rejection of that specific initiative. At the same time, the clear message from the republicans is that they remain interested in a long-term 'peace process'. Their immediate demand is for a resumption of private contacts with the Government.
Security sources in Northern Ireland have recently indicated that they would not be surprised by a rise in the level of IRA violence, on both sides of the Irish Sea, after the comparative lull of recent months.
The IRA has used mortar bombs only sparingly in Britain since such attacks require a great deal of planning and preparation. It takes some time to prepare a vehicle for use in this way, as well as reconnaissances to work out the angles and distances. The weapon is also notoriously inaccurate. None the less, when attacks take place terrorists are assured of considerable publicity.
Tom Roche, of Sky Television, said the station received its warning at 5.05pm from a man with an Irish accent. 'He said 'I won't be repeating this warning'. He then gave a recognised codeword and went on to say 'In one hour's time a large number of bombs will go off in Heathrow airport. Clear all runways. Stop all flights'.'
Despite the warning, the runways were kept open until after the incident. The north runway was closed at 6.40pm for police to search the area. Heathrow's two main runways are alternated for take-offs and landings during the day to equalise the amount of noise in the local areas.
Police had recently received intelligence warnings about a possible terrorist attack this week. Patrol activity was stepped up in and around central London on Tuesday night with more vehicles stopped and searched and drivers questioned.
The increased activity continued yesterday. In one incident police halted a tipper lorry going along the Mall towards Buckingham Palace. The driver was questioned.
IRA campaign restarts, page 2
Inside Parliament, page 10
(Photograph omitted)Reuse content