Vatican plays down 'terror plot' arrests in Britain

18th September 2010, Comments 0 comments

British police questioned six men Saturday over an alleged plot to launch an attack during Pope Benedict XVI's state visit to Britain, but the Vatican and security sources played down the threat.

Counter-terrorism police raided a cleaning depot early Friday to arrest five men, aged between 26 and 50, "on suspicion of the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism", Scotland Yard said.

A sixth man was detained later Friday.

The men are street cleaners employed in the Westminster district of London, where the pope spent much of Friday and Saturday, the local authority confirmed.

Several reports said they would have been on duty near or in Hyde Park on Saturday, where the pope is to give a giant open-air mass attended by an estimated 80,000 people.

All six men, who are reportedly of Algerian heritage, were being held at the high-security Paddington Green police station in central London.

But the Vatican insisted "no one felt threatened" by the security alert.

"We never attributed much importance to these arrests," Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi told AFP.

The 83-year-old pope was "very calm", he said, and the four-day trip -- the first ever state visit by a pope to Britain -- was "taking place smoothly".

But while the Vatican played down the threat, Britain's tabloid newspapers said the arrests had been linked to a threat to kill the pope.

"Blow up the pope" was the front-page headline of the Daily Mirror, while the Daily Express said the arrests had been sparked by a "Muslim plot to kill pope".

Several reports claimed the men, who worked for environmental services contractors Veolia, had intended to hide bombs in dustbins.

The Italian press was in no doubt that the men had been aiming to attack the pontiff.

"They wanted to kill the pope" was the identical headline in La Stampa and Il Messagero newspapers.

In Britain, The Guardian reported that police had swooped on the suspects after being informed of concerns stemming from conversations overheard between some of the men arrested.

Andy Hayman, a former Assistant Commissioner for Special Operations at Scotland Yard, said in an article for The Times: "Although still too early to assess, it is more likely that police have acted promptly as a precaution rather than being in a position to bring charges."

His opinion was reflected by other officials speaking anonymously, such as a senior security official who told the Financial Times: "It would be wrong to portray this as the culmination of a long-running investigation.

"It was recent information that had to be acted upon. It might be nothing, it might be something, it's too early to say."

I.Media, a press agency which specialises in covering Vatican affairs, quoted a source within the pope's entourage as saying the arrests of the men "bordered on the over-zealous".

Security remained tight around the pope on Saturday, with police closing key roads in the capital along the route the Popemobile will take.

But police insisted that although the security arrangements had been reviewed following the arrests, they would not be changed.

© 2010 AFP

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