LONDON // Six Muslim street cleaners were freed without charge by police in London yesterday after being arrested on suspicion of plotting to kill the Pope. The men, five Algerians and a Sudanese, had been arrested at gunpoint by anti-terrorism officers on Friday, the second day of Pope Benedict XVI's visit to England and Scotland.
Detectives questioned them throughout Friday and Saturday before deciding that there was "no credible threat" to the life of the Pope. The men were overheard discussing the possibility of assassinating the Pope on Thursday in the canteen of the street-cleaning depot in central London where they worked, according to the Sunday Mirror. One was reported to have said: "It would be pretty difficult to shoot the Pope, wouldn't it, as his car is bullet-proof?"
Another replied: "Yeah, but I bet an RPG [rocket-propelled grenade] would get through that easily enough." Five of the men were arrested as they arrived for work early on Friday while the sixth was detained at his home that afternoon. Police searched 10 addresses in central, north and east London, including the men's homes and workplaces, but no weapons, bomb-making equipment or other suspicious items were found.
After the men were released yesterday morning, sources at Scotland Yard accepted that they might be criticised for over-reacting to what was probably no more than a light-hearted conversation. "However," one officer added, "imagine the outrage there would have been had this been a viable threat and we had decided to ignore the warning." Bob Quick, the former head of counterterrorism at Scotland Yard, added: "You don't have much time to evaluate the information, and you cannot take the risk.
"The duty on the police is to err on the side of caution, even if someone is not charged, rather than not acting and finding out you had a real plot which came to fruition." Mr Quick said there was a public misconception about the purpose of arrests in terrorism cases. "An arrest is a means of investigation. It does not mean someone is guilty of an offence." A Metropolitan Police spokesman would say only that all the men, between the ages of 26 and 50, had been freed.
Although police interest in the six has ended, their immigration status is now being investigated by officials from the UK Border Agency. Throughout the Pope's visit, which ended yesterday in Birmingham, a massive police operation was mounted, leading to complaints that the faithful got limited access to him. Thousands of officers in England and Scotland were involved in the operation, which was estimated to cost about £2 million (Dh11.5m), as well as members of the Swiss Guard.
In one incident, an 18-year-old youth was arrested for directing a laser beam at the pilot of a police helicopter patrolling the skies when the Pope celebrated mass in Glasgow on Thursday. @Email:email@example.com