| Armed British police officers at London’s Heathrow Airport on Monday. (AP)
London, Nov. 17 (Reuters): Armed police turned the British capital into “Fortress London” today amid heightened fears of a guerrilla attack on the eve of a visit by President George W. Bush.
The White House, wary of an al Qaida strike, has insisted on tight precautions. Traditional events such as a horse-drawn carriage ride with Queen Elizabeth will not be included in the programme.
Weekend suicide bombings against two synagogues in Istanbul that killed 23 people served as a reminder, if any were needed, that militants could strike at any time without warning.
An Arabic newspaper said a unit of the al Qaida network had claimed responsibility for the bombings and planned more attacks against the US and its allies Britain, Italy, Australia and Japan.
Britain had already moved to a higher state of alert after warnings of a possible al Qaida attack received days ago.
Roads in London were blocked and drivers stopped and searched as police tightened a security ring around the capital. Security was also heightened at the nation’s ports and airports.
“The security is unprecedented because one, the level of terrorism threat and two, the nature of the President’s visit,” London police chief John Stevens said.
Tens of thousands plan to demonstrate against Bush, whose decision to invade Iraq was opposed by a majority of Britons, though backed by staunch US ally Prime Minister Tony Blair. British troops play a major role in occupying southern Iraq.
Police snipers will line the President’s route on rooftops and all the capital’s rapid response armed units are on full alert ahead of tomorrow’s arrival.
British police do not routinely carry firearms.
Police have cancelled all leave and are putting 5,000 officers on duty in the capital’s biggest security operation.
Bush is staying at Queen Elizabeth’s London residence, Buckingham Palace, and demonstrators are determined to make their mark on a man who concedes he travels in a “bubble”.
“I think the main thing for us is to get as many people on the streets as possible,” said protester Guy Taylor from the “Globalised Resistance” group.
“We want to stop London, we want to make things unignorable, we want George Bush to feel our presence, and that means making it difficult for his cavalcade to get round London, making it difficult for him to feel like a free man here.”
Charles Kennedy, leader of the opposition Liberal Democrats, told BBC radio: “We should use the opportunity to leave the President in no doubt as to the extent of public concern, not just in our own country but in Europe generally, about the way in which events tragically have unfolded.”
A YouGov poll ahead of the trip showed just what poor regard Bush is held in by Britons. He was branded a threat to world peace by 60 per cent, while 37 per cent said he was “stupid”.
Demonstrators say they want to stage a peaceful protest at Bush’s war policy but the authorities, faced with the twin threat of a possible suicide attack and gridlock on the streets, are taking no chances.
A study released last week also said London was at greater risk of a terror attack than any other major city in the US or Western Europe. The Control Risks Group business consultancy said Blair’s support for the US-led war in Iraq as well as Britain’s large Muslim population meant there was a serious possibility of a suicide bombing.