Terror suspects may have been planning series of car bombings

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The Independent Online

Terrorist suspects allegedly involved in an al-Qa'ida plot may have been planning multiple car bombings against civilian targets, according to security sources.

Information received by the law agencies is increasingly said to point towards possible attacks on "soft targets" such as the attempted bombing of the Tiger Tiger nightclub in London two years ago.

However, although the police and security agencies insist the alleged terrorist plot was "very real" and attacks were "imminent", extensive searches of addresses in north-west England have failed to uncover any explosives.

Police are said to be examining claims that some of the arrested men had previously visited second-hand car dealerships, as well as "certain purchases" made by those detained.

Investigators have also taken away a car from one of the properties raided and were also said to be examining material seized from computers and photographs of public places taken by some of the 12 suspects as well as transcripts of communications between the men and Pakistan. A number of those detained – 11 Pakistani nationals and a Briton of Pakistani background – were said to have been seen taking photographs and filming themselves outside the Trafford Centre and Manchester Arndale shopping complexes – the latter houses The Birdcage nightclub – and St Ann's Square in the city. However, police sources stressed yesterday that there was no evidence so far concerning specific targets.

Eleven of the detained men arrived in Britain from Pakistan on student visas, leading to criticism about lax controls. The Pakistani high commissioner to London had said that his country should be allowed to vet applicants for visas to Britain.

However, British security agencies said the offer lacked credibility, as powerful elements within Pakistani security establishments were allied to the Islamist extremists.

Gordon Brown, who had criticised the Pakistani government for not doing enough to counter the export of terrorism from its shores, yesterday spoke on the phone to President Asif Ali Zardari. No 10 said the two leaders had agreed to co-operate closely on counter-terrorism measures.

The Immigration minister, Phil Woolas, said the system of checks carried out by the British high commission in Islamabad on visa applicants was "one of the best in the world".

Shoppers in Manchester city centre appeared to heed the "assurance" of the Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police, Peter Fahy, that he had "no hesitation" in visiting places such as the Trafford and Arndale centres – shops reported average expected sales.

Meanwhile, neighbours and associates of the men being questioned, reported to include three accountancy students at Liverpool John Moores University, two security guards and three others who are said to attend a university in Manchester, spoke of their shock at the arrests.

The latest property to be searched was in the same block in Edge Hill as another flat raided on Wednesday. Set in rubbish-strewn streets, it is in one of the poorest parts of Liverpool.

Locals said that the vast majority of those living in the flats were students many of them from the subcontinent, paying as little as £25 a week for accommodation. Officers spent much of yesterday taking the names and dates of birth of fellow residents. One tenant recalled how the men who lived in one of the flats searched had staged an impromptu celebration earlier this year during heavy snowfall on Merseyside.

Ajay Shukla, 27, a student from Delhi, said: "They were outside dancing round to Hindi music. They asked me and some others to join them but I had some work to do so couldn't," she said. "I never had suspicions about them. They were jolly guys, not aggressive and never any trouble."

*Last night a man was charged with making explosives, after being arrested in what police were treating as an isolated incident. The 30-year-old man was charged with suspicion of having items for use in connection with terrorism after police raided his home in Blackwood, South Wales last Saturday. He was later arrested under the Terrorism Act will appear today at Newport Magistrates' Court.