Police in London's bustling nightclub and theater district today defused a bomb that could have killed hundreds, after an ambulance crew spotted smoke coming from a Mercedes filled with a lethal mix of gasoline, propane and nails, authorities said.
The bomb near Piccadilly Circus was powerful enough to have caused "significant injury or loss of life" &
possibly killing hundreds, British anti-terror police chief Peter Clarke said.
The discovery resurrected fears that followed the July 7, 2005, suicide bombings that killed 52 people on three London subways and a bus and failed attacks on the transit system just two weeks later.
"We are currently facing the most serious and sustained threat to our security from international terrorism," Britain's new home secretary, Jacqui Smith, said after an emergency meeting of top officials.
Police were examining footage from closed-circuit TV cameras in the area, Clarke said, hoping the surveillance network that covers much of central London will help them track down the driver of the Mercedes.
Sky News television, citing unnamed sources, said authorities saw a man fiddling with a cell phone near the Mercedes and believe he may have been trying to detonate the device with the phone.
Hours after the discovery, police closed a major road on the edge of Hyde Park in response to reports of a suspicious vehicle. Sky News and the British Broadcasting Corp. reported that the vehicle was linked to the foiled plot, although a police spokeswoman denied any connection had been established.
Officers were called to Haymarket, just south of Piccadilly Circus, after an ambulance crew &
responding to a call just before 1:30 a.m. about a person who had fallen at a nightclub &
noticed smoke coming from a car parked in front of the building, Clarke said.
Photographs of the metallic green Mercedes show a canister bearing the words "patio gas," indicating it was propane, next to the car. The back door was open with blankets spilling out. The car was removed from the scene after a bomb squad disabled the explosives.
The busy Haymarket thoroughfare is packed with restaurants, bars, a cinema complex and West End theaters, and was buzzing at that hour. "Phantom of the Opera" is playing at Her Majesty's Theater down the street.
It was ladies' night Thursday, nicknamed "Sugar 'N' Spice," at the Tiger Tiger nightclub, a three-story venue that at full capacity can pack in 1,770 people and stays open until — a.m.
Police were also investigating the possibility that the planned attack could have been criminal in nature.
In response to the foiled bombing, the U.S. government urged Americans abroad to be vigilant but officials said they saw no potential terrorist threat in the United States ahead of next week's July 4 Independence Day holiday.
"At this time we are characterizing this as a localized incident in London," said Laura Keehner, a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security.
Police in Britain said they did not have any suspects. Authorities urged people who were out in the area to call Britain's anti-terror hot line with any information. Authorities closed the Piccadilly Circus subway station for eight hours and cordoned off a 10-block area around the scene.
Clarke said police would examine footage from the vast network of video cameras in central London equipped with license plate recognition software. There are 160 security cameras in the Westminster Council, the district encompassing Piccadilly Circus and the Haymarket area, alone.
The cameras were put in place following a series of IRA bombing attacks in London in the 1990s &
and to enforce London's congestion charge, a toll levied on cars entering central London during certain times of the day.
A British security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the security details, said there were similarities between the device and vehicle bombs used by insurgents in Iraq.
Bomb defused in central London