May 27, 2017 / 8:27 AM / 2 months ago

UK lowers attack threat level as police close in on bomber's network

5 Min Read

LONDON (Reuters) - British intelligence experts no longer believe another attack is imminent as significant progress has been made by police investigating the suicide bomb attack on a pop concert in Manchester, Prime Minister Theresa May said on Saturday.

Police hunting a suspected network behind Salman Abedi, the bomber who killed 22 people on Monday night, said they had made two further arrests overnight and that they had a greater understanding of how his device was made.

May said this meant the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre (JTAC), the independent body which sets the threat level, had decided it should be lowered from its highest rating "critical", which meant an attack could be imminent, to "severe".

"A significant amount of police activity has taken place over the last 24 hours and there are now 11 suspects in custody," May said.

"The public should be clear about what this means. A threat level of severe means an attack is highly likely. The country should remain vigilant."

The threat assessment has now been returned to the level it was at prior to the attack in Manchester, northwest England, and means soldiers who have been assisting police would be withdrawn from Britain's streets from midnight on Monday.

As well as killing 22 people, including seven children, Monday's blast injured 116 with 63 still in hospital and 20 in critical care, health officials said.

In the latest police action on Saturday, officers used a controlled explosion to gain entry to an address in the north of the city where two men were detained.

Some hours later, police cordoned off a large area in the Moss Side area of south Manchester and houses were evacuated with a bomb disposal unit sent to the scene.

Security services had feared an experienced bomb-maker could be large but a source with knowledge of the investigation told Reuters on Thursday Abedi might have made the bomb himself or with an accomplice, lessening the risk of another attack.

"We are getting a greater understanding of the preparation of the bomb," Britain's most senior counter-terrorism officer Mark Rowley said. "There is still much more to do. There will be more arrests."

Rowley, who said on Friday police were confident they had apprehended a "large part of the network", said there had searched or were still examining 17 addresses, mainly in northwest England, and there would be further raids.

"There will be more searches but the greater clarity and progress has led JTAC ... to the judgement that an attack is no longer imminent," he said.

However, extra armed officers will still be on duty across the country with security stepped up at some 1,300 events over the long holiday weekend.

People write messages on an English national flag during a vigil for the victims of an attack on concert goers at Manchester Arena, in Royton, near Manchester, Britain May 26, 2017.Phil Noble

"Go Out and Enjoy Yourselves"

Earlier this week a source with knowledge of the matter told Reuters the security services were managing 500 active operations involving some 3,000 people who were thought to pose a threat.

The Times newspaper said on Saturday that intelligence officers had identified 23,000 jihahist extremists living in Britain.

Rowley advised people to be vigilant but to "go out as you planned and enjoy yourselves".

Slideshow (3 Images)

There are a number of high-profile events over the weekend including soccer cup finals in London and Glasgow, and the Great Manchester Run.

A large police presence was in place at the Old Trafford cricket ground in Manchester where some 50,000 people were expected on Saturday for a concert by the Courteeners rock band.

"A visible, united, police presence making sure everyone has a good time at tonight's gig," Greater Manchester Police said on Twitter.

While police and politicians have praised communities in Manchester for their reaction to the bombing, Greater Manchester Police Chief Constable said there had been a rise in reported hate crimes, from an average of 28 to 56 incidents on Wednesday.

"We can't directly link these to the events of Monday night and are continuing to monitor the situation," he said.

Political campaigning for the June 8 national election which was suspended after the Manchester attack resumed on Friday with the bombing becoming a central feature.

The opposition Labour Party, emboldened by a rise in opinion polls, argued that Britain's foreign policy had increased the risk of attacks and criticised Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May for cutting spending on policing.

May said Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was saying Britain was to blame for the bombing.

"I want to make one thing very clear to Jeremy Corbyn and to you, and it is that there can never, ever be an excuse for terrorism," she said at a summit of Group of Seven leaders in Sicily.

A poll on Thursday put May's Conservatives five points ahead of Labour suggesting a far tighter race than previously anticipated.

Additional reporting by Phil Noble in Manchester; Editing by David Clarke,

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