Six men held in Britain over pope visit 'terror' alert

17th September 2010, Comments 0 comments

Pope Benedict XVI pursued his full itinerary Friday on his historic visit to Britain despite the arrests of six street cleaners on suspicion of plotting a "terrorist" attack linked to the trip.

The Vatican insisted that the pope was "calm" following the alert and that there had been no change to the 83-year-old's packed schedule, which included a highly public show of unity between the Catholic and Anglican leaders.

Counter-terrorism police in London swooped at dawn to detain five men, aged between 26 and 50, "on suspicion of the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism", a police statement said.

A sixth man was arrested later Friday. Sky News reported the suspects were Algerian.

The local council in the London borough of Westminster confirmed the first five men arrested worked for an environmental services company hired by the council to clean the streets.

Several reports said police swooped just as they were about to leave their depot to start their shift in Westminster, where the pope spoke Friday at the Houses of Parliament and attended a service with Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams at Westminster Abbey.

Police said there would be no change to the security measures for the four-day visit.

"Following today's arrests the policing arrangements for the papal visit were reviewed and we are satisfied that our current policing plan remains appropriate," a Scotland Yard statement said. "The itinerary has not changed."

Police searched two business premises and eight residential properties in the British capital but said no "hazardous items" were found in initial checks.

But security was tight in Westminster, with hundreds of police on the streets, some with sniffer dogs.

Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said: "We're totally calm, the pope is happy... we're totally confident in the work of the police."

The alert came on the second day of the first ever papal state visit to Britain.

After a private meeting between the pope and Williams at Lambeth Palace, the London residence of the Anglican leader, Benedict said the difficulties between the two churches were "well known to everyone".

But the leaders stressed they wanted to focus on the "deep friendship" between their churches.

The attempt at rapprochement comes just 11 months after Benedict shocked the religious world with an offer to take in dissident Anglicans angered by their church's moves to consecrate female bishops.

It was a day of firsts for the pope -- no pontiff has visited Lambeth Palace or the historic Westminster Abbey since the foundation of the Church of England when King Henry VIII broke with Rome in 1534.

At the abbey, the pope shook hands with the woman canon, Reverend Jane Hedges, a prominent Church of England figure and campaigner for the ordination of women.

It was believed to be the first time a pope has shaken hands with a clergywoman. The pope is strongly opposed to the ordination of women, and Vatican rules consider it a "crime against the faith".

Earlier, in a speech to an audience at the Houses of Parliament including former prime ministers Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, the pope warned that religion -- and especially Christianity -- was being "marginalised".

The run-up to the pope's visit to Britain was clouded by criticism of the Catholic Church's handling of child abuse by priests.

On Thursday, the pope made some of his clearest condemnations yet of the sexual abuse of children by priests, saying the Catholic Church was not "vigilant" enough about the problem.

He is expected to meet a group of abuse victims on Saturday in London.

A group of victims demonstrated in Westminster Friday, holding up photos of 20 children they said had been been abused by Catholic clerics.

One American protester, Mike Coode, from Nashville, told AFP: "I have come here to remind the pope that we are present and we are asking the pope to speak out and punish the bishops who allowed this."

On Saturday, the pope holds a prayer vigil in London's Hyde Park before moving Sunday to the central English city of Birmingham to beatify a 19th century convert to Catholicism, John Henry Newman, in the climax of the visit.

© 2010 AFP

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