Police issue Trafalgar Square plea as anxiety mars Hogmanay plans

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The Independent Online

One of the more subdued New Year's Eve celebrations of recent years will swing into action tonight, with Trafalgar Square closed off and Edinburgh's Hogmanay party under the shadow of a security threat.

One of the more subdued New Year's Eve celebrations of recent years will swing into action tonight, with Trafalgar Square closed off and Edinburgh's Hogmanay party under the shadow of a security threat.

The traditional, plaintive plea from police for revellers in the English capital to steer clear of Trafalgar Square for their celebrations takes on a new meaning this year since the area is a building site, being transformed into a pedestrian piazza. Thousands of people will be turned away. Protective blocks were being laid yesterday on the grass of Parliament Square, which is to become an impromptu alternative party site for up 1,000 people.

Chief Superintendent Paul Toland, of the City of Westminster Police, said: "The Trafalgar Square fountains will be closed as usual but so will most of the pedestrian area. My advice is see in the New Year close to home or at an organised event. This is the easiest way to avoid a lot of disappointment."

To compensate, London will experience relaxed pub opening times for the first time. Pubs, discos, nightclubs and members' clubs with a special licence can stay open for 36 hours from 11am today to 11pm tomorrow. About 2,000 police will be on duty.

In Scotland, where the 36-hour experiment was tried with only moderate success last year, a 1,000-strong squad of police and MI5 officers has been enlisted to patrol tonight's Hogmanay party in Edinburgh, amid fears that terrorists may strike during the mêlée of celebrations.

Civic leaders are concerned that days of speculation about a terror attack in Scotland, fuelled by anti-terrorist arrests in the city and a leaked intelligence document that cited Edinburgh and Glasgow as "high-value" targets, could persuade hundreds of locals to leave the festivities to tourists and reduce the estimated £36m the local economy earns from the event. The rumour machine has been in overdrive since three Algerians were arrested in Edinburgh under the Prevention of Terrorism Act before Christmas. The timing of the arrests and the seizure of detailed maps of Edinburgh have contributed to an air of high anxiety.

Tonight's intense police presence in Edinburgh will be complemented by 100 uniformed stewards and undercover officers, who are expected to mingle among more than 100,000 revellers, many from Australia, Japan, the United States and Canada. They turn highlights such as last night's Night Afore Fiesta and the huge concert on Hogmanay into Europe's biggest New Year party.

Experts say terrorist groups could conceivably place cars loaded with explosives near barriers marking off street parties. Professor Paul Wilkinson, an expert in international terrorism based at St Andrews University, said the raids leading to the Algerians' arrests suggested police and intelligence experts were concerned at the threat.

"Suspects were arrested in London and Edinburgh in an operation led by Lothian and Borders Police," he added. "That, in itself, may point to [concern about] an alleged plot within Scotland, but the nature of those concerns is unclear."

A 90-page management emergency briefing report to Scottish police, which detailed "plans and contingency measures" for such an incident, recently stated that "current intelligence assessments by the Security Services" meant the probability of a terrorist attack was high. Fire service leaders have indicated they are being prepared to deal with chemical and biological attack, while hospitals are also on a higher state of alert.

But the City of Edinburgh Council urged residents and visitors not to be deterred. "We have not been alerted to any specific threat," a spokesman said yesterday. "We are open for business and looking forward to a fantastic Hogmanay."

Next year, Trafalgar Square should be back in business. The £30m pedestrian-only square, with an open-air café, is due to reopen in June.