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Britain faces ‘major escalation’ after three failed car bombings

BRITAIN: Britain faces a “major escalation” in Islamist attacks, a senior official said Sunday, after the national threat level was raised to “critical” following three failed car bombings in two days.

Scottish police confirmed that an incident Saturday in which a jeep rammed the main terminal at Glasgow airport and burst into flames was being treated as terrorism and is linked to a double car bomb plot thwarted in London Friday.

The plots raised the spectre of possible Al-Qaeda-inspired attacks returning to the British capital, two days after a new government took power and a week before the second anniversary of the city’s July 7, 2005 suicide bombings.

“I can confirm that we believe the incident at Glasgow airport is linked to the events in London yesterday,” said Chief Constable Willie Rae, briefing reporters on the incident earlier in the day.

In a potentially disturbing detail, Rae also revealed that a “suspect device” was found on one of two men arrested after the attack, when he was taken to hospital to be treated for severe burns.

Anti-terrorism police later arrested two people in the Cheshire region of northwestern England in connection with the failed attacks in London and Glasgow, police said Sunday without providing other details.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown, facing a baptism of fire just days after taking office, explained the decision to raise the threat level to “critical” after a fresh meeting of the government’s COBRA crisis cell late on Saturday.

“Critical” is the highest on a five-level scale, and means another attack is expected “imminently.”

“The first duty of a government is the security and safety of all the British people,” Brown said. “So it is right to raise the levels of security at airports and in crowded places in the light of the heightened threat.”

Amid fast-moving events, Liverpool’s John Lennon airport was also closed until further notice after the attack in Glasgow.

In the United States the White House also announced that security was being beefed up at US airports, although a spokesman said there was “no indication of any specific or credible threat to the United States.”

The developments came exactly a week before the second anniversary of the July 7, 2005 suicide bombings on London transport which killed 52 people during the morning rush-hour.

The latest string of foiled attacks began in the early hours of Friday when two Mercedes cars packed with gas cannisters and nails were abandoned in London’s entertainment district.

Police launched a manhunt immediately after the first car was found shortly thereafter, and on Saturday Sky News reported that CCTV footage had provided “crystal clear” images of a man running away from the car parked outside a crowded nightclub.

The second car was left parked nearby, also in the early hours of Friday, but it was given a parking ticket and towed away to a car pound.

It was only there that the explosives were found after police were alerted later Friday.

One witness quoted by the BBC said that some 500 people were in the nightclub when the first car bomb was spotted by alert guards around 1:30 am — shortly before the club was to close, spilling revelers out onto the street.

In Saturday’s Glasgow attack, two men described by some eyewitnesses as of “Asian” appearance drove a jeep-style vehicle into the front of the main terminal.

In Britain, “Asian” appearance usually refers to people of Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi origin.

Witnesses said one of the men with his clothes on fire left the vehicle and was restrained by members of the public.

The flames were put out with a fire extinguisher, and the pair were arrested, one of them being taken to hospital.

At a news conference later, Chief Constable Rae said a “suspect device” was found on him while he was being treated for severe burns at the hospital, which was partly evacuated as a result.

He refused to respond to a question about whether the “suspect device” was a suicide belt, but added: “It was on his person.”

In London security was ratcheted up with increased police patrols on the streets, in particular as hundreds of thousands of people turned out for the city’s annual Gay Pride march.

But London Mayor Ken Livingstone insisted Londoners would not be deterred.

At Wimbledon security was tightened up at the famous tennis championships, with systematic checks on all vehicles entering the car parks and on everyone coming in to the tournament.

Chillingly, a message posted in an Internet chat room shortly before the attacks were foiled appeared to indicate an Islamist link.

“London shall be bombed,” said the 300-word posting on the Al-Hesbah chat room — sometimes used by Al-Qaeda — left by a person identified as Abu Osama al-Hazeen, CBS News reported.

In an article Sunday, Brown’s new security adviser former Scotland Yard chief Lord John Stevens warned: “Make no mistake, this weekend’s bomb attacks signal a major escalation in the war being waged on us by Islamic militants.

”Writing in the News of the World weekly tabloid, Brown’s new adviser on international security issues said there had been a significant increase in Al-Qaeda influence in Britain.

“The terror of 7/7 (the July 7, 2005 suicide bomb attacks in London) was awful enough, but now Al-Qaeda has imported the tactics of Baghdad and Bali to our streets,” he said.

“And it will get worse before it gets better.”

He added: “Hard evidence is hard to come by, but there is growing suspicion Al-Qaeda operatives — possibly British-born — have returned from Iraq as well as the traditional terrorist training camps in Afghanistan to guide groups here.”

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