OK, this is terrifying stuff. The guy the police pumped lead into in front of horrified London transit onlookers? Innocent.
LONDON, July 23 – Scotland Yard admitted Saturday that a man police officers chased and shot to death at point-blank range in front of horrified subway passengers on Friday had nothing to do with the investigation into the bombing attacks here.
Senior investigators and officials of the Metropolitan Police said the man was believed to be South American; it was not known whether he was Muslim. No explosives or weapons were found on the man’s body after the shooting, police officials said.
The incident sent shock waves through the country’s 1.6 million Muslims, already alarmed by a publicly acknowledged shoot-to-kill policy directed against suspected suicide bombers. And it has dealt a major setback to the police investigation into suspected terrorist cells in London.
“This really is an appalling set of circumstances,” said John O’Connor, a former police commander. “The consequences are quite horrible.”
Azzam Tamimi, head of the Muslim Association of Britain, said: “This is very frightening. People will be afraid to walk the streets, or go on the tube, or carry anything in their hands.”
The admission by the police that it had killed a man not involved in the investigation revived and fueled an already tense debate over the arming of British police officers. It also came after a series of police misstatements since July 7, when four bombing attacks on three subway trains and a double-decker bus in London killed 56 people, including the four suicide bombers, and injured hundreds of others.
On Thursday, four more attackers attempted to bomb three other subway trains and a bus, but their bombs failed to explode. On Friday, plainclothes police officers staking out an apartment followed a man who emerged from it, then chased him into the Stockwell subway station and onto a train. The man tripped and the police officers in pursuit fired five rounds at point-blank range.
After the shooting, Sir Ian Blair, the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, said, “The information I have available is that this shooting is directly linked to the ongoing and expanding anti-terrorist operation.”
The police then issued images taken from closed circuit television cameras of four men suspected of carrying out the failed attacks on Thursday and said that, while the man they shot may not have been one of the men in the photographs, he was still being sought as part of their investigation. “The man shot at Stockwell station is still subject to formal identification and it is not yet clear whether he is one of the four people we are seeking to identify and whose pictures have been released today,” a statement said Friday.
“Nevertheless the man who was shot was under police observation because he had emerged from a house that was itself under observation because it was linked to the investigation of yesterday’s incidents.” the Friday statement said.
“He was then followed by surveillance officers to the station. His clothing and his behavior at the station added to their suspicions,” the statement added, apparently referring to reports that the man was wearing bulky jacket on a summer day.
Throughout Saturday, the police refused to give any further details. Then, in the late afternoon, Scotland Yard issued a statement contradicting the earlier police comments.
“We believe we know the identity of the man shot at Stockwell Underground station by police, although he is still subject to formal identification,” the new statement said. “We are now satisfied that he was not connected with the incidents of Thursday, 21st July.”
The statement repeated that the man had been seen emerging from an apartment house under police surveillance and had been followed by officers.
“For somebody to lose their life in such circumstances is a tragedy and one that the Metropolitan Police Service regrets,” the statement said. It said the police had started a formal inquiry.
So far in the investigation, the police have detained two suspects. It was not clear whether those men were among the four caught on security cameras.
Laudemar Aguyar, press officer for the Brazilian Embassy in London, said Saturday night that he had been in touch with Scotland Yard about the slain man’s identity after receiving “a large number of inquiries” from reporters, both in the British and the Brazilian press.
Asked if Prime Minister Tony Blair would address the issue, a spokeswoman at 10 Downing Street who spoke under civil service anonymity rules said Mr. Blair was “kept updated on all developments, but this is a matter for the Metropolitan Police. We have nothing to add.” Prime Minister Blair was spending the weekend at his country residence, Chequers.
But with the nation tense and jittery after the repeat attacks and the shooting itself, Mr. Blair was expected to confront political passions likely to be inflamed by what his critics are depicting as excesses of a war on terrorism.
“This policy is another overreaction of the government and police,” said Ajmal Masroor, a spokesman for the Islamic Society of Britain.
Adding to the tensions, both the government and the police have sought the support of British Muslims to assist in the inquiry.
“This will turn people against the police, and this is not good,” said Mr. Tamimi, of the Muslim Association. “We want that people stay beside the police. We need to convince the people to cooperate, but for this, the police have to come out with clear information and new plans.”
Civil rights groups also seemed likely to demand new curbs on the police at precisely the moment officers have been given far more of a free hand to pursue the investigation into the bombings.
“No one should rush to judgment in any case of this kind, especially at a time of heightened tension,” said Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, a civil and human rights group, calling for a “comprehensive and independent investigation” into the events.
She acknowledged, however, that officers faced “knife-edged, split-second decisions often made in times of great danger.”
The Friday shooting itself was all the more shocking because it happened in full view of passengers aboard a stationary subway train at Stockwell station. Mark Whitby, a witness, said three men pursued another man into the car, and one man with a handgun fired five times.
In a country used to unarmed police officers, the shooting seemed to be a stark turning point – one that seemed even more portentous after the police admission on Saturday.
The killing revived a never-resolved debate among the public and the police over the arming of officers. In one recent case, officers faced trial after shooting a man carrying a wooden table leg in the mistaken belief that he was armed.
Some police officers authorized to carry weapons now say they prefer not to because of the risk of prosecution if they make mistakes.
Normally British police officers are under orders to give ample warming and, if they have no choice but to open fire, to aim to wound. However, according to London’s mayor, Ken Livingstone, that has given way to a shoot-to-kill policy in some circumstances.
“If you are dealing with someone who might be a suicide bomber, if they remain conscious they could trigger plastic explosives or whatever device is on them. And therefore overwhelmingly in these circumstances it is going to be a shoot-to-kill policy,” he said after the shooting Friday, but before the acknowledgement by the police that the dead man was not part of the investigation. Police guidelines for dealing with suspected suicide bombers recommend shooting at the head rather than the body in case the suspect is carrying explosives.
Except in Northern Ireland, at airports and nuclear facilities, British police officers are not routinely armed. A small percentage of officers – roughly 7 percent in London – have weapons training, which is also required for the use of Taser stun guns, available to nearly all police forces. As routine weapons, officers carry a baton and a tear-gas-like spray. Of more than 30,000 officers in London, around 2,000 are authorized to carry weapons, a Scotland Yard spokesman said, speaking anonymously under police rules.
Even before Saturday’s police statement, Britons had been bracing to see how their vaunted sense of fair play and civil rights survives the onslaught by attackers and the measures to combat it.
“Many civil liberties will have to be infringed to impose the requirement on all communities, including Britain’s Muslims, to destroy the terrorists before they destroy us,” the author Tom Bower wrote in The Daily Mail on Saturday.
The country’s Muslim minority has expressed vulnerability to a backlash since it was announced that the July 7 bombers were all Muslims, three of them British-born descendants of Pakistani immigrants in the northern city of Leeds. Groups linked to Al Qaeda have claimed responsibility for both sets of attacks.
The Islamic Human Rights Commission said it feared that “innocent people may lose their lives due to the new shoot-to-kill policy of the Metropolitan Police.”
Sir Iqbal Sacranie, head of the Muslim Council of Britain, said: “While we accept that the police are under tremendous pressure to apprehend the criminals who are attempting to cause carnage on the streets of London, it is absolutely vital that utmost care is taken to ensure that innocent people are not killed due to overzealousness.”