Police were on high alert last night after anti-terrorist officers warned that the dissident terrorist group responsible for the London car bomb could try to "maim and kill" in the next few days.
The latest attack, in which a Saab packed with 88lb of explosives made from fertiliser was detonated in west London, marked a serious escalation in violence and showed that the bombers were intent on "mass murder", said the head of the Metropolitan Police's anti-terrorist squad.
It also emerged that the vehicle used in the bombing had been reported to the police as abandoned in another street in London on Monday and was about to be towed away by the local authority. A man with an Irish accent and a pock-marked face had bought the grey Saab 9000 for £425 on 19 July from a London car dealer.
Police say the bombing is the seventh attack in London since February last year to have been carried out by the Real IRA, a breakaway republican group which is attempting to wreck the Northern Ireland peace process.
Eleven people were injured in the explosion, four of whom needed prolonged hospital treatment, one of them for a broken shoulder. The bomb was detonated just before midnight on Thursday outside two busy pubs in Ealing. One pub was packed with about 150 people enjoying a karaoke night.
The blast shattered windows, blew out shop fronts, destroyed a water main, and left debris strewn across the pavement for 200 metres.
The bombers gave a coded warning to an out-of-hours doctor telephone service 27 minutes before the car exploded. The police had started to clear the area and said later that it was amazing no one had been killed or seriously injured.
Assistant Commissioner David Veness, who has overall control for the fight against terrorism, said the bomb represented a "worrying development". He added: "In order to drive home its agenda, they [the terrorists] are willing to risk the lives of completely and utterly innocent people, in this case a significant number of young people." He linked the attack to the deadline for Northern Ireland politicians to respond to the latest peace proposals. "The next few days are a particularly testing time," he warned. The police are understood to have stepped up the number of armed vehicles and beat officers on patrol as well as increased security surrounding likely targets.
Deputy Assistant Commissioner David Fry, head of the Metropolitan Police's anti-terrorist branch, said: "From the damage caused there, we are fortunate indeed that we are not dealing with mass murder."
The second-hand Saab used in the Ealing bombing was bought by an Irishman for cash from a dealership in Green Lane, Ilford, east London. It was then reported abandoned by local residents in Esher Road – just around the corner from where it was bought – on 30 July. The vehicle, which had been parked in the road for a least a week, was not reported stolen, so the local authority placed a sticker on the window threatening to tow it away.
The car – registration E304 HPY – was moved on the same day and its whereabouts up until the explosion are unknown. On the night of the bombing it was parked outside some busy pubs and near two cash point machines, close to Ealing Broadway station. The warning call did not give any details of the vehicle and said it was in the "Ealing Broadway road", which does not exist.
The police had approximately 15 minutes to start clearing the streets and search for the car before it exploded at 20 seconds after midnight.
Forensic experts recovered the remains of a blue plastic barrel used to hold the explosive which is similar to that found in other Real IRA attacks.Reuse content