Manchester bewildered as reports of chemical attack turn out to be untrue

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The Independent Online

The arrest of 10 terror suspects prompted the front-page banner headline, "Was it going to be chemical?", above an aerial photograph of the Old Trafford football ground in Manchester's evening newspaper 11 days ago.

The arrest of 10 terror suspects prompted the front-page banner headline, "Was it going to be chemical?", above an aerial photograph of the Old Trafford football ground in Manchester's evening newspaper 11 days ago.

Yesterday, the city was in a state of understandable bewilderment as it digested the news that all 10 suspects had been freed. In fact, nothing so specific as an attack on Manchester United's ground or one of the club's games ever appears to have existed, despite the deployment of 400 police officers from four forces to carry out the raids.

The sequence of events leading to the arrests began when telephone calls monitored over several weeks by GCHQ began throwing up allusions to an attack on a sports ground and possibly a football ground. According to security sources, the conversations provided references to something "spectacular" and to the fact that an attack may be easier to conduct outside London.

But security services considered the threat to be relatively modest. The idea was only germinating and did not, in any sense, seem imminent. It was also being discussed by suspects of a nationality considered very low risk to the UK's security - Iraqi Kurds - who have minimal opposition to the invasion of Iraq and little affinity for al-Qa'ida.

Sources suggest that after the GCHQ intelligence reached Greater Manchester Police, via Scotland Yard, the force was free to decide whether to act or to increase the chances of obtaining incriminating evidence by letting the plans evolve. It chose the first option. Quick, precautionary arrests had the benefit of disrupting plotters and sending a warning to any would-be bombers. Although the chances of an attack might have been minimal, two of Manchester United's upcoming home fixtures - against Liverpool last weekend and Chelsea on 8 May - would have provided the perfect opportunity for something "spectacular".

Though security sources were suggesting within six hours of the raids that the nine men and one woman arrested were of little significance, the story was stoked by suggestions that tickets for the Manchester United game with Liverpool were discovered in one of the raided premises.

If the plot had been quite that advanced, it might be assumed that the fixture would have been cancelled. But with police reluctant to provide any sense of the importance of the arrests, the Old Trafford story ran in last Tuesday's Sun and Daily Mail .

As the city's anxieties led Greater Manchester Police to bring in extra officers for last Tuesday night's home game against Charlton, the force found itself with a severe lack of incriminating evidence as it began interviewing its detainees and searching premises. The search of a flat above the Dolphins kebab shop in Upper Brook Street, Manchester, continued for seven days, but to no avail.

One source in Manchester said yesterday: "All they needed was a microscopic piece of evidence. There are several things in there which could have been used aggressively but they're things like alarm clocks, which could be in any home."

Officers had hoped that the 14 days of questioning offered under the 2000 Terrorism Act would give them a longer period of time to lay charges. But to their surprise and frustration, the Manchester district Judge Michael Abelson denied such a liberty. He ruled last Friday that the police had no right in law to extend the detention of a man, woman and a 17-year-old youth.

Since suspects arrested under anti-terror legislation must be either charged or released, Greater Manchester then took the tactical decision to abandon terror inquiries altogether against the remaining seven suspects and instead pursue criminal charges, which meant they had to get them bailed.

Six of the remaining seven - including four from Greater Manchester, one from Staffordshire and one from Coventry - have been arrested again on other non-terror allegations and bailed pending further inquiries. The seventh has been deported to North Africa. The crimes being investigated are believed to relate to the use of false identities and access to weapons.