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Police foil EDL plan to target St Paul's

172 arrested as far-right group gathers in Whitehall to march on Occupy City protesters
  • @kevinJrawlinson

More than 170 supporters of the far-right English Defence League were arrested in Westminster yesterday as police moved to prevent a repeat of the violent clashes that took place on Remembrance Day last year.

A contingent of the group's members gathered outside the Red Lion pub near the Cenotaph on Whitehall. Police confirmed last night that threats were made before the visit by Michael Rafferty, a prominent far-right figure, that the group had access to firearms and was planning to bring them to London.

It is believed that some members were planning to go to St Paul's Cathedral and clash with the protesters encamped there.

Police said they had acted to prevent a "breach of the peace" after intelligence suggested that members were likely to get involved in violence in the capital. Mr Rafferty, who was not arrested, was stopped outside another Whitehall pub and was searched, but no firearms were found.

The 172 arrests were made around two hours after wreaths were laid at the Cenotaph to commemorate fallen servicemen and millions of Britons held a two-minute silence to remember the nation's war dead.

The incident comes just one day after Muslims Against Crusades, a group that last year burnt poppies during the silence, was banned by the Home Secretary Theresa May.

The home of its leader Anjem Choudary, as well as two other addresses, were raided by police in a six-and-a-half-hour operation on Wednesday night under the Terrorism Act 2000. Officers reportedly took literature away with them, but no arrests were made.

The operation also comes just two days after the new Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Bernard Hogan-Howe's "total policing" policy was put to its first test at the most recent student demonstration. At times during the march, officers were said to outnumber protesters, whose numbers were thought to be depleted after police said they were holding baton rounds in reserve to deal with serious violent disorder.

Earlier in the day, the Metropolitan Police faced criticism over what some regarded as intimidating messages posted on Twitter.

Using the account belonging to the Central Operations bureau – which deals with public order policing, among other branches – officers said that any attempts to disrupt Remembrance Day services in the capital would be dealt with "robustly".

In a later message, officers said: "If the memory of dead soldiers is insulted where people have gathered to honour those soldiers, there is clearly a threat to public order" and that "deliberately using abusive or insulting words or behaviour is an offence under section four of the Public Order Act".

However, the offence requires the "intent to cause immediate unlawful violence", a fact later acknowledged by police, who apologised in a tweet for "any confusion caused" and provided a link to the wording of the Act.

A minor skirmish involving the EDL also took place at the Liverpool office of the trade union Unite.

Fallen remembered: From Armistice to Afghanistan

Britain fell silent for two minutes yesterday as a mark of respect for the nation's war dead.

The annual service, held on the anniversary of the Armistice which silenced the guns in the First World War in 1918, comes just two days after the death of another British soldier in Afghanistan.

Private Matthew Thornton, 28, from the 4th Battalion The Yorkshire Regiment, was killed by an IED while on patrol in Babaji. His family paid tribute to him as a "dedicated soldier" who "loved life".

Wreaths were laid at the Cenotaph in Whitehall during a remembrance service organised by the Western Front Association. In a recorded message used at the Royal British Legion ceremony in Trafalgar Square, David Cameron, said: "We stand together to honour the incredible courage and sacrifice of generations of British servicemen and women who have given their lives to protect the freedoms that we enjoy today."

The act of remembrance was also observed at St Paul's Cathedral, where anti-capitalist protesters are encamped. They formed a circle and linked hands in silence. Earlier, organisers had pledged not to "get in the way" of the traditional two minutes' silence and a separate service was held inside the cathedral.