LONDON (AFP) â€” London faced a second apparent terrorist attack in a fortnight on Thursday as bombers targeted three subway trains and a bus, a precise mirror image of events on July 7 when at least 56 people died.
This time the three blasts reported by witnesses were far less serious, with police reporting just one injury, although the British capital’s transport system was again plunged into chaos.
But the attacks carried a series of chilling echoes of a fortnight before; three trains and a bus attacked at compass points ringing the city and witnesses again reporting explosive devices carried in rucksacks.
Police also stressed that however limited the impact, the attackers’ intention had been plain â€” to wreak the same carnage seen on July 7.
“Clearly the intention must have been to kill. You don’t do this with any other intention,” said Ian Blair, the head of London’s Metropolitan Police. “I think the important point is that the intention of the terrorists has not been fulfilled,” he told a press conference.
The alert began just before 12:30pm (1130 GMT) when police evacuated Shepherd’s Bush Underground station to the west of the city centre, with witnesses reporting smoke around the station entrance.
Almost simultaneously there were emergencies at two other stations, Oval to the south and Warren Street, right next to London’s central West End shopping district.
Witnesses on the latter two trains reported seeing small explosions coming from rucksacks, the same bomb-carrying method used by the four British Muslim men named by police as the July 7 suicide bombers.
Ivan McCracken, who had been travelling on the train attacked at Warren Street, said fellow passengers described seeing a man carrying a rucksack which “suddenly exploded.”
“It was a minor explosion but enough to blow open the rucksack. The man then made an exclamation as if something had gone wrong. At that point everyone rushed from the carriage,” he said.
An eyewitness who was on the train at Oval station described seeing a man flee after his rucksack exploded.
“There was a little explosion. As soon as the door opened the man ran away and people were trying to run after him,” the unnamed woman told Sky News television, adding that he appeared to escape.
About an hour later, the driver of a No. 26 bus driving through Shoreditch, just east of the centre, reported hearing a loud bang on the top deck of the vehicle followed by a pall of smoke.
On investigating he found some of the bus’ windows blown out.
Police refused to detail exactly what had happened, with police commissioner Blair saying only that “attempts have been made to set off explosive devices,” also declining to definitively link the attacks with those two weeks before.
“There is a resonance here, I mean these are four attacks, there were four attacks before,” he added.
Terrorism experts said the most likely scenario was that the attackers had intended to cause similar carnage to July 7, but their rucksack bombs failed to go off as planned.
Magnus Ranstorp, director of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of Saint Andrews in Scotland, said the bombs may have been a “bad batch” or bady wired. “I think there could be the possibility that the material was degraded or they did not wire it correctly,” he told AFP. “The material could have been from a bad batch of explosives that had been degraded.” Police stressed that the latest attacks could prove a major boost to officers investigating the attacks a fortnight before.
“We do believe that this may represent a significant breakthrough in the sense that there is obviously forensic material at these scenes which may be very helpful to us so I feel very positive about some of these developments,” said police chief Blair.
Prime Minister Tony Blair urged Londoners to repeat their much-praised attitude to the July 7 attacks and carry on as normal. The attackers were trying to “intimidate people and to scare them and to frighten them to stop them going about their normal business,” he said after talks with Australian Prime Minister John Howard at Downing Street. “It is important that we respond by keeping to our normal lives and doing what we want to do because to do otherwise is, in a sense, to give them the very thing they are looking for.”
Despite the limited impact, the attacks shut down much of the London Underground system and brought traffic gridlock to parts of the city as police sealed off a series of streets. For the second time in two weeks, thousands of Londoners heading home from work faced the prospect of waiting hours for a packed bus, walking to a railway station or making the entire journey on foot.
“You can never really expect it, but it’s less of a surprise this time,” said Siva Rubakumar, a 32-year-old accountant standing near Saint Paul’s station, wondering how to begin his trek to a distant northern suburb.
“But what can you do? You have to keep going on. You don’t want these people to change the way you live.”