Police believe a van carrying what may have been the largest bomb planted by the IRA in Britain was spotted in Peterborough on Friday afternoon.
As the hunt for the bombers was stepped up, under the codename Operation Cannon, police said the white and orange Ford Cargo truck containing the device which devastated the centre of Manchester had been seen in the Peterborough area at 3pm on Friday.
The truck, registration number C214ACL and with the words Jack Roberts Transport on the side, was spotted by a police officer at 10.02am on Saturday outside Marks & Spencer in Manchester. That was after the coded bomb warnings and almost one hour and 20 minutes before the blast. It is understood the vehicle was sold to a dealer in Wisbech, Cambs, about two months ago.
Anti-terrorist officers from London and forensic scientists were yesterday sifting through the wreckage. Judging by the distance some of the debris travelled, officers think the bomb was at least as large as that which devastated the South Quay area of London's Docklands in February and possibly even bigger. Crucial to their investigation is the belief that somewhere among the hours of closed-circuit videotapes gathered by cameras in the area is photographic evidence of who was driving the van. Police evaluating the tapes last night appealed to business premises with cameras covering arterial routes into Greater Manchester to keep tapes and contact them.
The first full picture of what lies before the authorities in their attempt to return Manchester city centre to normal began to emerge yesterday. Journalists were allowed the first access to the site of the explosion. Accompanying the media was the Greater Manchester Assistant Chief Constable, Colin Phillips, who said: "It was a miracle that no one was killed. The force of the blast seems to have gone round corners and over the top of buildings." Walking on what looked like a carpet of broken glass and debris, Mr Phillips added: "This is all absolutely devastating and it is a great tragedy to see Manchester like this."
He reinforced opinion that the bomb was "as large as anything to hit mainland Britain". For those who saw the devastation of the attack on South Quay, the Manchester blast appeared to have similar consequences: buildings torn to shreds as though made of papier mache; water pouring out of twisted structures as though they had been crushed; holes pockmarked over building facades as though teams of demolition men had been trying to knock them down.
Mr Phillips described the attack as the work of "absolutely evil criminals". One of Greater Manchester's senior officers called in to help survey the scene, Chief Supt Peter Harris, received news on Saturday that he was to be awarded the Queen's Police Medal in the Birthday Honours List. Of the explosion, he said: "This has taken away from the award. I came into work delighted; now it has faded into significant ... it is just horrendous."
From descriptions by senior officers and from the evidence gathered at the scene yesterday, the scale of the Manchester bomb has clearly astonished experienced police officers. One described it as "a whirlwind of devastation".
The Deputy Chief Constable, Malcolm Cairns, effectively acknowledged this, when he said the initial safety cordon had only been a few hundred yards around the Arndale, the location given in the four telephoned warnings which had been received in both Northern Ireland and on the mainland.
The initial cordon was not enough. After the blast, glass was "raining" on the fleeing and screaming civilians as far as half a mile around the bomb's epicentre.
One intelligence source said yesterday that once initial forensic examination of the city centre was completed and the search for potential evidence exhausted, the police hunt would then prioritise the van's movements prior to its arrival in Corporation Street.
Investigations are, however, continuing to examine who may have stolen or rented the van, who were its drivers and whether the bomb was the work of an active IRA cell in north- west England or whether the bombers had specifically targeted Manchester on the day the Queen's official birthday celebrations took place in London.
IRA's biggest bombs
April 1996 - Hammersmith Bridge - 30lb semtex, failed to explode
February 1996 - London's Docklands - 2,240lb fertiliser and semtex, killed two people
April 1993 - Bishopsgate - 2,240lb of fertiliser, killed one man
April 1992 - Baltic Exchange - 100lb of fertiliser, detonated by a small quantity of semtex, killed three people
November 1990 - Annaghmartin, Co Fermanagh - 3,500lb fertiliser, failed to explode
November 1990 - Stoke Newington - 2,000lb fertiliser, failed to explode
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