Police seize half ton of bomb-making chemical

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The Independent Online

Police today seized more than half a tonne of ammonium nitrate fertiliser which could have been used to carry out a terror bombing on UK soil.

Police today seized more than half a tonne of ammonium nitrate fertiliser which could have been used to carry out a terror bombing on UK soil.

Eight suspected Islamic terrorists, all British citizens of Pakistani descent, were arrested as 700 officers carried out 24 raids across London and the Home Counties.

Anti-terrorist detectives believe an al Qaida-supporting cell could have been plotting a "spectacular" attack.

The fertiliser - a key bomb-making ingredient - would have been enough to cause a blast on the same scale as the 1996 IRA bombs at South Quay, station, Canary Wharf in London, and the Arndale Centre in Manchester.

Ammonium nitrate fertiliser, which requires a "booster" explosive to set it off, is believed to have been used by al Qaida in an attack on the US embassy in Nairobi in 1998 and in the first World Trade Centre bombing in New York in 1993.

It was the major ingredient in the biggest of the bombs used by Islamic terrorists in Bali which killed 202 people in 2002 and was also used in bombings against British targets in Istanbul last year and in the 1995 Oklahoma bombing.

Home Secretary David Blunkett said the fertiliser find was a "timely reminder" that UK interests at home and abroad remained a terrorist target and he praised a "first class" police and security operation.

He said: "We have always been clear with the people in the UK that we face a real and serious threat and have never disguised the fact that this threat could manifest itself in any number of ways."

The fertiliser stash was found in a plastic bag - 6ft high by 2ft wide - at a storage centre in Boston Road, Hanwell, west London.

A person who answered the phone at Access Self-Storage today refused to comment.

Police had been mounting their operation for months and are believed to have been planning to make raids in coming weeks.

They are thought to have acted this morning after becoming convinced a bomb could be made.

Scotland Yard deputy assistant commissioner Peter Clarke, head of the Anti-Terrorist Branch and National Co-ordinator for Terrorism, took the unusual step of making a public statement following the raids at 6am today.

Speaking at Scotland Yard after the discovery of the fertiliser, he said: "Part of the investigation will focus on the purchase, storage and intended use of that material.

"I would like to stress that there is no danger to the public in that area."

He added that police were in talks with leading British Muslim groups.

"We know the overwhelming majority of the Muslim community are law-abiding and completely reject all forms of violence," he said.

"Today at both local and national levels we have been holding discussions with community leaders and other representatives to address any concerns they may have."

The suspects are aged 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 21, 22 and 32.

Their youth sparked speculation that others alleged to be involved may have escaped capture but Scotland Yard refused to comment.

The raids were launched in Uxbridge, Ilford and Colindale in London and in Crawley, Slough, Luton and Horley in the Home Counties.

Two of the men were arrested in Uxbridge, one in Ilford, one in Horley, one in Slough and three in Crawley.

Many of the addresses searched were a short drive from airports but Scotland Yard refused to comment on whether an airport could have been the target.

Hanwell, Uxbridge and Slough are near Heathrow. Crawley and Horley are near Gatwick.

In Langley Drive, Crawley, today two uniformed police officers were standing guard outside a house after one of the raids.

The door to the red brick terrace property had been forced and forensic investigators in blue plastic suits were taking photographs.

Four people with Arabic-sounding names were registered as living at the address on the electoral roll.

Police were also on guard outside an Internet cafe in nearby Langley Parade.

A Portuguese national, Jose Pestana, 41, sparked a major terrorist alert in March last year when crude bombs - made up of aerosol cans and firework gunpowder - were found under a sofa at his flat in Langley Parade.

He was convicted by a jury in September last year of planning to plant two home-made bombs at a restaurant at Gatwick Airport but the judge at Hove Crown Court said the offence was not terror-related and he was jailed for 10 years.

One of the houses raided was the home of an elderly couple in Stratford Road, Luton.

The pensioners, who are not believed to be connected with the investigation, were not arrested and are staying with relatives while police search the house.

One uniformed officer stood outside the semi-detached property where searches were continuing.

The house is one of six that were raided by police in Luton.

Two of them were in Overstone Road.

Neighbours said one of those homes belonged to an elderly couple, while the other was occupied by their daughter, her husband and their two children.

One woman, who did not want to be named, said the family moved into the street at least 10 or 15 years ago and were originally from Pakistan.

She said the daughter had married around six or seven years ago and her father had bought her the house across the road.

The elderly couple are believed to have three sons and two daughters, although neighbours said they believed all the children had left home.

The neighbour added: "They were very religious. They never mixed with other people. They never spoke to us."

A house raided in Juniper Road, Crawley, had been occupied by a father, his sons and a daughter, a neighbour said.

The father worked for a nearby catering firm, which supplied meals to airlines at Gatwick.

"I would be very surprised if they had done anything wrong. If something like that happened round here, everyone would be very surprised."