By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 8, 2007
LONDON, Feb. 7 -- At least six people have been injured by seven letter bombs in Britain over the past three weeks, in what police said could be a campaign by animal rights extremists or a disgruntled motorist fed up with this country's automobile laws -- or both.
None of the injuries has been serious and the devices, contained in padded mailing envelopes, were designed to "cause shock and relatively minor injuries" using "pyrotechnic" material rather than "conventional explosives," Anton Setchell of the Association of Chief Police Officers, who is coordinating the investigations, said at a news conference.
Setchell said that police are keeping "a completely open mind" about who is responsible and possible links between the incidents but that animal rights extremists and disgruntled motorists are "priority lines of investigation."
Prime Minister Tony Blair said Wednesday in Parliament that the incidents were being investigated "very closely." Home Secretary John Reid, who is in charge of domestic security, called them "worrying."
Animal rights extremists have waged violent campaigns in Britain in the past, including scores of firebombings. One case involved exhuming the mother-in-law of an owner of a family farm that raises guinea pigs for use in laboratory testing.
On Jan. 18, three commercial laboratories that do forensic work with police received letter bombs in the mail. One of them exploded, injuring one person. The two others were intercepted and did not explode, Setchell said.
The name of Barry Horne, an animal rights extremist and convicted firebomber who died on a hunger strike in prison in 2001, was written on one of the packages. Police said they believe the three incidents are related, but they have not publicly suggested any link with this week's bombings.
Extremists claiming to speak for frustrated British motorists, who pay extremely high taxes and face one of the world's most extensive networks of speed cameras, regularly blow up and burn those cameras. But there have been no known cases of these extremists attempting to injure people.
Letter bombs exploded this week at three companies linked to the regulation of roads and drivers. On Monday, a woman was injured at the London office of Capita Group, which has many government contracts, including design and management of the congestion control system that charges drivers the equivalent of about $16 a day to enter central London. The plan has been widely praised for reducing traffic but is unpopular among many drivers who believe the fee is excessive.
On Tuesday, two men suffered cuts and burns at the accounting firm Vantis in Wokingham, 40 miles southwest of London. The package that exploded was addressed to one of the firm's clients, Speed Check Services, which provides highway speed enforcement equipment and technology to police. A woman was injured Wednesday in a blast at the government's Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency main office in Swansea, Wales.
Last Saturday, a 53-year-old man was slightly injured when he opened a letter bomb mailed to his home in Folkestone, in Kent, southeast of London. Kent police did not disclose the incident until Wednesday and said they were investigating whether it was linked to the other incidents.
"We condemn this," said Paul Biggs of the Association of British Drivers, which campaigns peacefully against what it calls oppressive government regulation of motorists. "There's always some extremist who takes things too far."
A group called Motorists Against Detection claims to have done $40 million worth of damage by destroying 1,000 speed cameras since 2000. The group's fugitive leader, who identifies himself only as Captain Gatso (after the company that makes the speed cameras), said in a telephone interview that he and his 200 followers had nothing to do with the letter bombs.
"We don't want to hurt anybody -- we only terrorize the government's cash machines on the side of the roads," he said, referring to the cameras. He added that police had called his phone this week to question him about the letter bombings. He said he told them that he opposes causing injury to other people but that he could "understand and appreciate the frustration" that might have motivated the bomber.
On London streets Wednesday, several people said they were frustrated by road laws, particularly the London congestion charge and the speed cameras, which they said were designed more to raise money through tickets than to improve road safety.
"I get grumpy driving, just like everyone else," said Toby Freeman, 67, a semiretired yacht captain. "But this guy gets none of my sympathy. You have got to be a nut case to send a bomb."
Special correspondent Karla Adam contributed to this report.